Gunnar Baldwin is a soft-spoken octogenarian living in a quiet corner of New Hampshire. A mathematician turned plumbing supply executive, he knows more about toilets than anyone I’ve ever met. He can talk for hours about numbers one and two.
It’s hard to write seriously about toilets, but they are a serious matter. A 2017 study published in the medical journal The Lancet estimated that poor sanitation contributes to approximately 775,000 deaths worldwide each year. According to the World Health Organization, just a little over half the world’s population today has access to reliable sanitation, and 6% of the population has no access to sanitation at all. They go behind a bush, if they can find one.
That’s where Baldwin comes in. After a career spent in the manufacture, sales and politics of low-flow toilets for places with highly developed infrastructure, he turned his mind to the problem of sanitation in areas with limited technology and little access to water.
His solution? The MOH, or “moveable outhouse.”
The design is simple and effective. It is a little shack about 3 feet by 3 feet, and 7 feet high; the walls and roof are constructed of plywood. Inside is a wooden bench with a hole covered by a toilet seat, just like the typical outhouse. The difference is that instead of sitting atop a deeply dug pit, the MOH sits over a shallow trough just six inches deep. The dirt from the trough is shoveled into a bucket, and users of the MOH scoop a bit of the dirt over their waste after each use. When the dirt is gone, the trough has been filled and the outhouse can be moved to a new spot.
Whereas a traditional outhouse deposits waste in a pit, where it can sometimes seep into the groundwater and contaminate it, the MOH uses the topsoil, where organic material breaks down rapidly, to more efficiently convert waste into nutrients.
The other difference between the MOH and a typical outhouse is that there is no smell. The vent pipe and the soil covering each use take care of that.
I took a tour of Baldwin’s lawn. I could see two rectangular patches of newly planted grass where the MOH had been recently, but that was all. I could see no evidence of the 28 previous places it had been located.
The MOH is not the solution to the world’s sanitation problems, but it could be a solution for a certain portion of the world’s population. And it sheds light on some of the significant problems Americans tend to overlook when dealing with human waste.
The biggest problem, according to Baldwin, is that we are stuck with a system that is sucking up our clean water reserves. “We made a huge mistake when we developed a sewer system using drinking water to flush our waste,” he observed.
That worked fine back when clean water was plentiful, but with increasing droughts west of the Mississippi River, surface water is becoming scarce in many areas, and high capacity wells have already drained much of the groundwater supply from our aquifers.
A potential remedy would be to mandate super low-flow toilets. Already in use on trains and airplanes, they use about a cup of water per flush. But our sewer systems aren’t designed to function with such small amounts of water. Existing sewer lines require flowing water to push waste through the system, and if the water isn’t kept flowing, the pipes clog up.
One of the results of living in a highly developed country is that we tend to forget the very basic conditions of human life. The majority of the U.S. population lives in urban and suburban areas with little connection to the production of food, the generation of energy, the securing of drinking water and the disposal of waste. Our food comes from the grocery store, heat comes from a furnace, water comes from a tap and human waste disappears down a pipe.
The danger of living too far removed from real consequences is that we start trying to change the world to suit our beliefs instead of taking care that our beliefs follow from the way the world really is.
The latest high-profile debate in our national government is over the amount to be spent on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a good-sized portion of which — $55 billion — is designated for updating our water and sewer systems. If that legislation is passed, how will it affect my community? I could offer some guesses, but I have no practical knowledge. The scale of the legislation is just too large and complex.
When most of our political debates are about large, complex issues about which we have little direct experience or knowledge, they inevitably become polarized, reflecting general attitudes rather than informed opinion.
I do not know the answer to all our current political difficulties. But I do know that part of the answer is to simplify our lives so that we are reminded both of what we contribute to the world and what we take from it. And I am grateful to people like Gunnar, quietly and patiently working on solutions to problems that I, for one, know too little about.
The MOH is a particular solution to one particular kind of problem. And if there are enough people in the world quietly and patiently working out solutions to all kinds of particular problems, then we may be better off than we know.