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Wastewater Home Page | Call to Action | Test Results & References
Wastewater Management (chapter from the Solviva Book)

(A chapter from the SOLVIVA book)

While designing my new home it became clear to me that I did not want a standard septic system. I had learned about the large amount of nitrogen that is contained in human waste, and that standard septic systems do not process this nitrogen but instead release most of it into the groundwater. And I knew that the nitrogen does not biodegrade or diminish in the groundwater, but instead travels unabated with the groundwater to the nearest lagoon, pond or harbor, no matter how far away. Once there, the first plants that react to the nitrogen enrichment are the algae, which consequently multiply explosively, thereby causing devastation to our ecosystems.

There are many telltale signs of nitrogen pollution: thick masses of billowing algae "smog" covering the bottoms of ponds, choking out desirable aquatic flora and fauna, and killing the shellfish beds; slippery, smelly beaches covered with slimy green algae at low tide; the horrible stench that periodically envelops towns such as Vineyard Haven, caused by masses of algae putrifying on the beaches around the harbor; flows of living green and dead brown algae covering vast surface areas of ponds; and large festering sores on beautiful tidal marshes, choked by thick layers of dead algae.

22 beautiful trees were cut down to upgraded this septic system, and it cost $15,000.

A whole woods was destroyed for this new septic system.

The bottom of the leaching field is 10 feet deep, below the reach of roots of trees and shrups that could take up the nitrogen and benefit from it.

Sewage treatment facilities cost many millions, even in small communities. They require vast areas, cause foul odors, and use harmful chemicals.

Algae infestation on
Vineyard Haven Harbor, which sometimes result in foul odors enveloping the whole town.

James Pond: 50 or so septic systems release nitrogen into this ecosystem, previously clean and productive, now toxic and foul. Imagine being a fish, scallop or an eelgrass plant living in the water, where the algae pollution is a hundred times worse.

This beautiful pond is all gummed up
with foul-smelling algae.

Left: Imagine playing on this algae-infested beach.

Large sections of this marsh has been inundated and killed by thick layers of
rotting algae slurry.

Left: Algae infestation on
Vineyard Haven Harbor, which sometimes result in foul odors enveloping the whole town.

Edgartown Great Pond
polluted by excessive nitrogen.
Thus, it is obvious that
DEP regulations
are in serious violation of
the Laws of Nature

For many years these algae problems were blamed on geese, ducks and swans, and on farms and lawn fertilizers, but in fact these sources pale in comparison with the contribution from septic systems.

Standard on-site septic systems are constructed in accordance with the current laws of man, but these laws are in serious violation of the laws of Nature. In Nature all waste products - leaves, manure, dead animals - fall to Earth's surface. They are then rapidly absorbed and processed by the different decomposers who live in the top few inches of the skin of our planet, including earthworms and pill bugs and myriads of microscopic organisms. I am not advocating that we dispose of our wastewater on the surface, because this exposes pathogens which could lead to disease. But we can, and must, dispose of the wastewater within the top 12 inches of the surface, thus making it possible for the nutrients to be processed by living plants. I knew I did not want to waste the precious nutrients contained in the wastewater. I instead wanted to use them to enrich the surrounding trees, shrubs and flowers.

Many people think that just changing to low-flush toilets solves the pollution problem, but it is obvious that this in no way reduces the amount of nitrogen injected into the groundwater: although low-flush toilets do save water, requiring only 1.6 gallons or less per flush instead of the standard 5 to 7 gallons, they still flush exactly the same amount of nitrogen into the same standard septic or sewage systems and thus cause just as much pollution. Back then I thought we simply had to do away with flush toilets and replace them with various kinds of waterless toilets.

I researched different composting toilets developed all around the world, butdiscovered they all had problems such as mechanical failure, flies, odors, great expense, or limited capacity. Some had wide chutes leading to a composting chamber far below, evoking terrible images of an unwatched toddler or puppy falling in, head first. I did not want to have to padlock my toilet. Some systems used so much electricity that it seemed that any benefits gained were outweighed by the increased need for oil, coal or nuclear-generated power. For instance, one composting toilet required about 2 kwh/day for fan and heater, which is about 700 kwh/year (comparable to a refrigerator), which at our current rate of 15 cents per kilowatt-hour is $105 per year. So I designed my own composting toilet as well as graywater management system, based upon what I had learned while living in the little cottage in the woods.

When I went to the local board to obtain my building permit, I was fully prepared to have to defend what I felt was my right to build and test an innovative toilet system that I believed would be better than standard septic systems from both public health and environmental standpoints. I knew that regulations are rigid in these matters, but I was prepared to "go to the Supreme Court" if I had to. But to my surprise and delight I was given the building permit without any questions about septic plans. Apparently the permitting board figured I would hook into the preexisting septic system because the new house would be located adjacent to the one that had burned down. Thus I had the opportunity (for which I have always been grateful) to experiment and to discover that it is possible to have a toilet that uses no water, that is easy to maintain without odor or fly problems, and that costs very little to construct. I also discovered that it is possible to have a graywater management system that causes no pollution, costs no money, greatly enhances the landscaping, requires no maintenance, and has no problems whatsoever.


I created two compostoilets, one downstairs and the other upstairs. The toilet consists of a polished mahogany cabinet with a comfortable seat and a tight lid. Below is a 20-gallon plastic barrel holding tank.

The Solviva compostoilet is absolutely odor-free, and causes zero pollution.

Adjacent to the toilet is a hinged compartment containing a cover material that consists of sawdust or shredded leaves mixed with some compost. Thus, instead of flushing with 5 or 6 gallons of drinking water, a scoop of this cover material is all that is needed to immediately eliminate any odors.

The sawdust or shredded leaves in the cover mix perform the task of bulking and aeration. Also, their high carbon content bonds with the high nitrogen in human waste, resulting in excellent compost. The sawdust must be easily biodegradable, such as pine, hemlock, spruce, fir, maple or oak, not rot-resistant wood such as cedar, locust, teak, mahogany, or any wood treated with preservatives. The sawdust must also be fairly fine but not powder-fine. The consistency generated by a tablesaw is perfect. If leaves are used, they must be finely shredded. Old leaf mold works well. I do not recommend peat moss for compostoilets, because the fibers absorb so much moisture and swell up so that air circulation and oxygenpenetration is greatly reduced.
The best, and also the most convenient, compost to mix with the cover material is the finished toilet compost, because it contains the organisms that have evolved to best handle this particular ecosystem. But to start with, any good compost will do fine.

The toilet barrel has a drain through which the urine flows into a pipe that leads to the outside composting chamber. The urine adds valuable nitrogen and moisture to the compost, both of which speed up the composting process.
When the toilet barrel is three-quarters full (this takes about four weeks for a single person), the whole barrel is removed from the toilet cabinet and taken to the compost chamber area.

The toilet compost seems almost sacred: imagine transforming human waste into something so clean and beneficial.

Gorgeous toilet compost:
physical reincarnation
while you are still alive!

This self-seeded squash plant is obviously thriving in the toilet compost.

This flower garden has been thriving with annual applications of toilet compost for more than 20 years.

The easiest management system entails topping this barrel off with compost from the most active compost chamber, rich with earthworms and other decomposing organisms, and covering securely with a lid. After a short period of time, about two to three weeks in the summer and five to seven weeks in winter, the contents of the barrel will be fully composted and have the wonderful fragrance of good humus. After emptying the barrel into the compost bin, it is clean and ready to be used again. The changing process takes less than five minutes, and the different aspects of the whole system smell like good earth. Zero nitrogen enters the groundwater because the compost chamber is covered by a roof to prevent rains from leachingthe nitrogen into the subsoil and groundwater. The nutrients are all absorbed and processed by the various carbon materials and organisms in the compost sponge, resulting in top-quality compost.

My two compostoilets and the compost chamber cost just a couple of hundred dollars to build. The system has been functioning perfectly for 17 years now, and there is no reason why it would not be functioning equally well for another 100 or 5,000 years. There is no leach field that can clog up, as in standard septic systems. There are no plumbing pipes to plug up, as with flush toilets. There is simply nothing that can go wrong, except of course by human carelessness. For instance, if you don't use the cover material, it may smell. If you do cover, it doesn't smell at all. If you let the drum get too full, it is heavy to move. This compostoilet can be left unused for months on end, or can be used continually by one or any number of people. For large numbers of people, the barrel simply needs to be changed more often, but, as I said, that takes less than five minutes.

To some people the concept of a waterless toilet is really threatening, especially to men. There have actually been times that men have asked for the bathroom, and when told that it is a composting toilet, they swiveled right around, and while avoiding eye contact, said: "That's allright. I can wait." Whereas most women go right in, stick their head in and say: "It smellswonderful and looks so beautiful and clean. How is this possible?!" Children love it. They just sit there and glow, and soon "need to go" again. Leave it to kids to have the right instincts. For many people, using these compostoilets has been a deeply transformative experience, especially for those who have had a chance to participate in the changing process. People are elated when they see human waste transformed so effortlessly into a truly lovable product.


Even with compostoilets, I still had wastewater to deal with, namely that portion of the wastewater referred to as graywater. This is all the wastewater except that which comes from toilets. Current regulations sometimes allow compostoilets, but generally require standard septic systems to handle the graywater, although the size of the leaching field or pit can be reduced by 40 percent compared to households with flush toilets. Even these reduced septic systems require extensive excavations, and usually cost around $10,000 to $20,000, and in many cases far more.

In my new home I did not want to put my household graywater into a standard septic system, for reasons of pollution, landscape destruction, high cost, as well as waste of good irrigation water. Instead, I designed what I call a "fully upgraded", "bio-benign" septic system for purifying and utilizing the graywater.

These lovely Rosa rugosa and Pokeberry, as well as various beautiful grasses and wildflowers, are thriving from 20 years of graywater.

Dogwood happy with graywater

This area has been filtering graywater since 1981, and as of 1995 also the blackwater from the Solviva flushtoilet composting system. And the spruce, pines, dogwood and roses have been exceptionally vibrant all along.

This is another area of the Solviva Greenfilter flower gardens, here showing a stand of 5-foot cosmos.

The graywater pipe runs from the house down a short slope and ends in a shallow depression filled with wood chips and leaves. Grasses and wildflowers and some sumac bushes, Indian poke and a cherry tree already grew around this area, and I added a Rosa rugosa bush, a dogwood, a Norway spruce, and a white pine. These are my sewage treatment plants, and it is a most beautiful area at any time of year. All the wastewater from the house (occupancy ranging from 1-10 people) has exited here in this same spot since 1981, and there has never been any wastewater overflowing to the surface, no scum, slime or odors, and no flies or mosquitoes. The wastewater just seeps through the topsoil, and the roots of the surrounding trees and bushes, grasses and flowers know just where to go to find what they want. As the pictures eloquentlytestify, these plants are not only surviving, they are indeed exceptionally healthy and beautiful specimens.

Now, you might think that I have been using only special biodegradable soaps and avoided any toxic stuff. On the contrary. I felt it was important to use "normal" household substances, in order to know whether this greywater management system could function in the "real" world, where few people are willing to spend extra money for special "biodegradable" products. I have calculated that since 1981, the zone of influence of my graywater management system has received and successfully processed approximately the following: 45 gallons of chlorine bleach, 500 pounds of ordinary laundry detergents, 8 gallons of detergents for washing dishes by hand (I don't have a dishwasher, so I cannot vouch for such detergents), 15 gallons of shampoos (including dandruff shampoos which, I have been told, cause havoc in standard septic systems), 5 gallons of hair conditioners, and umpteen pounds of toothpaste. In addition, I have dyed some 3,000 pounds of wool in my weaving studio, using aniline dyes and approximately 50 gallons of vinegar. (Note to those who find it strange that I use aniline dyes instead of "natural" dyes: I switched to aniline dyes when I found out that the mordants - salts of chrome, copper, tin and aluminum - that are needed with most dye plants caused more damage to the environment, my plumbing and me than the aniline dyes and vinegar mordants.)

Last summer this system was submitted to the ultimate test: the bathroom sink clogged up for the first time, and, after asking the plants to please brace themselves, I poured down a whole bottle of standard drain cleaner, to test the system with "real world" stuff. To my relief, none of the plants exhibited the slightest sign of distress. But that's really pushing it. Next time I will just use boiling water which, I am told, works just as well to clear the drain.

A standard septic system is incapable of breaking down most of the undesirable substances contained in regular graywater, but instead releases them into the groundwater. The Solviva graywater system, on the other hand, greatly reduces contamination of the groundwater by neutralizing these substances in an environment containing a mutually beneficial combination of oxygen, sunlight, composting organisms, humus-rich topsoil and plants. The system is trouble-free and will most likely last "forever" without any maintenance other than standard landscape trimming.


Over the years I came to realize that very few people will adopt compostoilets any time soon, no matter how convenient, economical and clean they can be. This realization made me quite pessimistic about the potential for stopping the vast amounts of water pollution currently caused by standard septic systems. So I decided to design a method of combining flush toilets with composting. I am happy to report that I have discovered ways to keep the flush toilet AND to keep drinking water and aquatic ecosystems clean.

In September 1995, with capable carpenter and plumber, the upstairs compostoilet in my home was removed, and a regular 1.6-gallon flush toilet was installed. The toilet drainpipe empties into an enclosed Compostfilter, a box, 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide, built of wood against the outside wall of the house. The top and the front of the box can open for servicing and inspection. It is lined with plastic to prevent rotting of the wood and the house shingles, and it is insulated with 2-inch rigid foamboard to prevent freezing.

The Solviva flushtoilet composting system has been transforming human waste and toiletpaper into marvellous compost, healthy plants and clean effluent, since 1995.

The box is watertight with a drain on the bottom and is divided into two connected compartments. Each compartment is half-filled with Biocarbon mix, consisting of the right type and proportions of partially composted leaves and wood chips. I also installed 3,000 earthworms which I ordered by mail from a worm farm in Georgia, for $19.

I call this box the Brownfilter. The toilet waste pipe has an elbow at the end that empties into the box. This elbow can be flipped to empty into one or the other of the two compartments. The solids, including the toilet paper, are retained in the compost box, while the liquid quickly seeps through the Biocarbon mix, exits through the drain and into a sloped pipe that leads to a series of ground-level Greenfilters.
I started flushing into the first compartment as soon as the installation was complete, September 20, 1995. Throughout the first cold winter, even through subzero conditions, the temperatures in the box stayed above 55 degrees F, without any heating source other than the low-temperature (mesophilic) composting process itself. My plan was to flip the toilet waste pipe over to the second compartment when the first one was filled. However, to my utter surprise, it never did fill up, because the process of decomposition has reduced the volume faster than it has increased by the additions of the daily flushings. Seven family members were at my home for a week over that first Christmas, all using this toilet because I wanted to provide a real stress test. The system continued composting and draining reliably.

After my family left, I flipped the elbow of the toilet waste pipe to drain into the second compartment, in order to get an accurate reading of how long it would take for the solids to fully decompose. To my amazement, I found that within one week there was nothing recognizable left in the first compartment, nothing but rich black earthworm castings and healthy earthworms, which by this time had multiplied to hundreds of thousands of all sizes. When warmer weather returned I found that full decomposition was achieved in less than four days.

The truly astonishing fact is that the more I put into the box, the less there is in the box. As I write this, in October 1997, 25 months have passed since the installation, with usage ranging from one to seven people. This box has by now received approximately 2,500 flushes, 140 rolls of toilet paper, and 35 cubic feet of leaves and woodchips (the original 12 cubic feet plus periodic additions). The action of the earthworms and other bioorganisms has reduced it all to about 9 cubic feet of magnificent earthworm castings. Even with all my previous experience I never would have expected this could be possible.

When in its normal closed state, this compost chamber is absolutely odor-free. When you open it, it has a slight fragrance of a well-kept stable. It has never generated any flies, and no earthworms have ever ventured outside, probably because this box is clearly Earthworm Heaven.

The liquid seeps quickly through this Brownfilter and runs via drain and sloped pipe to a series of Greenfilters. The first is a shallow growing bed filled with the same Biocarbon mix plus sandy topsoil and healthy plants, lined with a waterproof membrane, with a drainpipe that leads downhill to a second Greenfilter, same as the first. From there the liquid drains into a 20-gallon pump chamber equipped with a float switch-controlled sump pump that periodically pumps 15 gallons of effluent into a perforated pipe installed in the third Greenfilter. This is a flower bed, and the pipe is installed in a layer of wood chips 6 inches below the surface. From there the water perks through the subsoil, where any remaining pathogens are destroyed.

Thus, all the wastes flushed down the toilet are transformed into excellent earthworm casting compost and irrigation water that benefit the landscaping. The nitrogen is absorbed by the Biocarbon filter materials and the plants and does not leach down to contaminate the groundwater.

I have also conducted other experiments with different versions of my Biocarbon filter, one for treating effluent from a standard septic tank, the other for treating septage and sludge pumped from numerous different septic tanks, including restaurants, businesses and homes. In the case of the septic tank effluent, lab tests showed a 90 percent reduction of the total Kjeldahl nitrogen, from 86 ppm to 8.1 ppm, and a 96 percent reduction of the ammonia-nitrogen, from 77 ppm down to 2.5 ppm. In the case of the Biocarbon septage treatment filter, total nitrogen was reduced 88.2 percent, from 152.34 ppm down to 17.81, while BOD was reduced from 607 ppm to 59 ppm, and COD from 640 ppm to 85 ppm. In both cases the flow-through took less than 10 minutes, and the foul odor was totally removed.

These results are nothing short of astonishing, to sanitation professionals and lay people alike. The Solviva Biocarbon filter systems demonstrate that we can manage our wastewater in ways that cause 90 percent less pollution than systems currently required by the state, and, in many cases, at far less cost.

Because of these successful experiments, I applied for a permit from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), to install Solviva Biocarbon wastewater filters in the "real world". After eight months of agonizing permitting procedures, the DEP finally gave me permission to install 15 pilot projects in Massachusetts, allowing a daily flow up to 10,000 gallons for each system. The first system has just been completed and is up and running, at the Featherstone Meetinghouse Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, and testing will begin soon. The second system is in the permitting process, for the Black Dog Tavern, a busy restaurant right on the Vineyard Haven harbor, that produces 4,000 gallons of wastewater per day. We are hoping to soon get the required permits, for the simple reason that there is not even the slightest possibility that the Biocarbon filter system could cause more risk to environment or public health than the current septic system. This project will tackle the most serious wastewater problem in town, and, if proven successful there as it has in the smaller experiments, will demonstrate that business or residential on-site septic systems even in the densest areas can be retrofitted with Biocarbon filters. This will render unnecessary the central sewage treatment facility currently being planned, and as a result the town will save millions of dollars. (For updated information, go to the "WASTEWATER" section.)
Based on my accumulated experience, I believe sanitary, trouble-free, nonpolluting wastewater management is achievable in urban, suburban or rural environments, whether in hot India or cold Alaska. The Solviva Biocarbon filter systems can save thousands for a family, millions for a community, billions for a nation, as well as prevent the use of toxic chemicals, compared to septic and sewage systems built in accordance with today's regulations. In addition, important fertilizer resources and water are saved and made available for beautifying the landscapes.

I have developed designs for city high-rise buildings, in which low-water toilets flush into Brownfilters set in 30-cubic-yard roll-off containers located in the basement. These Brownfilters retain and digest the solids, while the liquid is pumped through a pipe leading to Greenfilter flower beds in a nearby park. If no green area is available close by, the filtered effluent can flow into the city sewage pipes, greatly reducing the load on the central sewage treatment facility. The Brownfilter roll-off containers are removed periodically to one of several composting facilities, which also process all other compostable wastes produced by the city, such as food wastes, leaf and yard wastes, diapers, low-grade wastepaper, and shredded construction wastes (together comprising some 70 percent of the solid waste stream). Here the high heat of thermophilic composting processes, combined with solar heat, can render the wastes into safe, sanitary, organic compost fertilizer with a market value of millions of dollars per year (Big Apple Black Gold, Boston Black Gold...)


How to contact Anna Edey, Solviva, Trailblazer Press:
18 Solviva Road, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568
Tel: (508) 693-3341- - Cell phone: (774) 563-0898 - - Fax: (508) 693-2228
e-mail:, website:

AND, as of January 2014, at Blog/Website: