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There’s shi* in them thar mountains

photo558.jpgA big life goal of his, says Geoff Hill, is turning waste streams into valuable commodities. Toward that end, Hill’s PhD project focuses on designing improved systems for managing human waste in alpine and arctic regions. 

“It’s my life’s work to try and integrate humans into the ecosystems that support us,” Hill stated. “If you look at any ecosystem, its health and richness can be characterized by its degree of waste integration. Is anything more obviously out of sync between humans and our environment than flying sh*t out of the alpine under a helicopter?”

Currently, flying 200-litre drums filled with human waste, 80 or 90 per cent of which is urine, by helicopter long-line is the most common method of waste removal from backcountry sites throughout Alberta and B.C.’s mountains.

But, Hill points out, unsustainable methods are not restricted to backcountry cabins. 

“We’re very accustomed to flushing a .2-kilogram poop or a .3-litre piss with 20 litres of potable water,” Hill explained. “Somehow we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking this isn’t crazy. But it’s clearly outrageous to long-line drums of excrement by helicopter from provincial and national parks all across North America. The helicopter is one of the most inefficient vehicles ever made, and one of the most dangerous and most expensive vehicles to operate.”

So, Hill is studying alternatives, including the benefits, costs and performance capabilities of potential methods with an analytical approach never before undertaken. An avid climber, this summer Hill is conducting research in B.C.’s Bugaboo Provincial Park. 

“With the line of work I’m in, the least I can do for myself is choose a beautiful place,” Hill said. “Bugaboo Park is very popular and it has numerous backcountry toilets, including forest-level pit toilets, Kain Hut barrels, Applebee Camp barrels and high alpine thrones at the Bugaboo Snowpatch Col and Pigeon Howser Col. I started a project focused on Everest Base Camp in order to bring more sex appeal, but with a slow start up, I shifted my focus to the Bugaboos.”

At this point in his research, the most promising alternatives are urine diversion — preventing urine, which is sterile, from coming into contact with feces, which are pathogen rich — combined with dehydration. He is also collecting data on composting toilets at Lillian and Elbow lakes in Kananaskis, Little Yoho Campground and Mounts Shasta and Ranier in California and Washington.  

In the Bugaboos, a urine diversion seat, combined with dehydration has yielded an 84 to 95 per cent mass reduction of the total waste. Hill is also testing a hydro-powered ash incinerator, using the mini-hydro system, which provides clean electricity to the Alpine Club of Canada’s (ACC) Conrad Kain Hut. 

One key element of his research is to develop a system that can be retrofit into existing toilets, which keeps costs low. Fortunately, urine diversion seats and urinals retrofit easily into most backcountry toilets. Once his data is complete, it will be available to park operators and policy makers to make quantitative data-based decisions.

Hill’s research is of particular value to the ACC, which operates 27 backcountry huts, ranging from 30-person log cabins in sub-alpine locations to four-person shelters perched high in the alpine. Most of these huts rely on fly-out barrel systems, piggy-backing helicopter flights to deliver empty barrels and propane pigs for lights and cooking while removing full barrels.  

Last month, Karen Rollins, project director for BEES, the ACC’s Backcountry Energy and Environmental Solutions committee, and three other ACC representatives attended the Exit Strategies—Managing Human Waste in the Wild conference in Golden, Colo. Attendees included land managers, scientists, entrepreneurs and wilderness operators from as far as Alaska, New Zealand, Japan, Nepal and Argentina.

“One of the main points that came out of the conference was that for every region, although we all experience difficulties in waste management, the solution is always going to be a bit different,” Rollins said. “You have to go with a toolbox, a selection of waste management solutions, and apply the one that meets your needs best, and you might have to tweak them. BEES is trying to get away from fossil fuels. For the ACC, there’s still room for research, and that’s why BEES exists.”

In western Canada, where temperatures regularly dip below freezing in the alpine nine or 10 months of the year, a barrel of waste created in January or February will still have a chunk of ice in it in July. While some southern US parks are successfully employing composting toilets, they rely on warmth to work properly. 

“In the alpine, it’s very — extremely — challenging, because of the temperature requirements,” Rollins said. “It’s difficult to get composting toilets to work in the alpine.” 

Pit toilets, she added, require soil and bedrock for micro-organisms to break down the waste — elements not readily available, or penetrable, in the alpine.

“The key for all off-grid waste management solutions is urine separation,” Rollins said. “Even the newest flush toilets add gallons of water, and the whole mix has to be treated. Then it all ends up in our rivers and oceans. Urine separation is our future.”

In northern Europe, she added, urine separation is already being carried out, with the urine being used as fertilizer. 

“Urine diversion is cheap, easy and reliable,” Hill said. “But the impacts of urine diversion on alpine and arctic soils and plant communities are little known. If diverted correctly, my hypothesis is that local plant communities will thrive. There is clear evidence showing that urine can be used as fertilizer on a wide range of crops with high productivity, including tomatoes, cucumbers and bananas.”

Employing expertise gained from his Masters thesis that examined climate change impacts on arctic sedge meadow communities, Hill has initiated a project that utilizes urine from a remote arctic field camp in the production of leafy greens in a semi-permanent greenhouse. 

“Leafy greens are highly sought after, they grow in cold climates and are flown thousands of miles to remote field sites,” Hill said. “In addition to using human waste as fertilizer we intend to use waste cooking oil as fuel for the camp’s diesel power generator.”

As well, Hill is testing whether toilet composting is safe to dispose of on site. 

“Composting toilets don’t make much sense if you can’t spread the compost on soil locally,” he explained. “Most operators think that temperature is the only key variable to manipulate and measure, but stability and maturity are what determine the completeness of the compost end product.”

Immature compost is smelly, has high ammonia levels, and is phytotoxic to plants. Mature compost provides high levels of nitrites and nitrates.

With financial assistance from BEES, which is managed by Parks Canada, B.C. Parks and the ACC, and also from MEC and several Backcountry Lodges of B.C. Association members, Hill’s research is ongoing, and the world — and Canada’s alpine and arctic environments — should be the better for it.

“The land is losing, it’s not being put back,” Rollins said. “Ecological sanitation is not just for the Third World. There may come a day that the flush toilet is outlawed, and we’ll put fertilizer on the ground where it should be.”

“This is a huge opportunity to dig in and do research that hasn’t been done before,” Hill said. “We work and climb in the mountains and we take good experiences away. I want to contribute, not just leave problems behind for other people to deal with.”

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