Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Waste Matters: Compost, Domestic Practice, and the Transformation of Alternative Toilet Cultures around Skaneateles Lake, New York

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Waste Matters: Compost, Domestic Practice, and the Transformation of Alternative Toilet Cultures around Skaneateles Lake, New York

Article excerpt

Abstract. The Skaneateles Lake Watershed Composting Toilet Project highlights the material and sociocultural challenges of developing new kinds of embodied practices that effectively utilize alternatives to traditional water-dependent plumbing. Practical, small-scale innovation is important to addressing the human dimensions of these changes, particularly given the widely held taboos informing discussion of what happens behind closed bathroom doors. In this example an innovative watershed policy placed composting toilets in seventy-five lakeside homes to prevent household blackwater from polluting an unfiltered drinking water source utilized by 250000 people. Interviews with key informants and participating households illustrate the ways in which expectations of toileting practice sit in tension with the need to preserve the health of the local watershed, particularly over the long term. Understanding shifts in toileting practice must move past functional assessments of new or untested technology, taking into account sociocultural understandings of private, deeply embodied, yet resolutely pragmatic daily habits. As individuals seek to normalize new toilet technology as a part of daily routines, they encounter the body's materiality in ways that conflict with expectations of what belongs inside the home. In this case, the traditionally excluded effluence of the human body remains too close for comfort, forcing a renegotiation of the common boundary-making habits defining domestic space. The result is a shift in expectations about what of the body can or should belong in the home.

Keywords: composting toilet, boundary making, domestic space, everyday practice, material geography, blackwater


In 1998 the Syracuse, New York Department of Water (DoW) updated a long-standing policy regarding the management of toilet waste for vacation cottages on the shores of Skaneateles (pronounced 'skinny-ATLAS') Lake, Syracuse's drinking water supply. As with many lakeside cottages, those around Skaneateles Lake had been built with minimal attention to wastewater or toilet waste disposal; many had their only toilets located in simple privy structures. Households on the lake's southern end are beyond the reach of the municipal sewer system stretching out from the village of Skaneateles at the lake's northern tip. Cliff-lined shores, narrow subsoils, and state and federally mandated directives to prevent point-source pollution have made the installation of on-site, water-driven wastewater management technologies counterintuitive, prohibitively expensive, or impossible (see figure 1). Yet, managing this persistent waste flow is essential to protecting Syracuse's primary, unfiltered water resource. The new program replaced a rather archaic system of modified privies--a nearly century-old free service reliant on five-gallon steel pails and a boat-based, weekly pickup--with composting toilets in seventy-five lakeside properties. The composting toilets have shown clear, if uneven, benefit.

Skaneateles Lake provides freshwater to 250000 people in Syracuse and eleven surrounding communities. Though household wastewater was historically the purview of municipal management, the new program changed the distribution of risk and responsibility for the Lake's health by devolving that management to private domestic spaces. At the same time, the program exposed the tenuous relationship between the everyday habits of the body and the domestic technologies designed to accommodate its wastes--usually by exclusion. The function and processing capacities of the composting toilet technology limited the means through which waste could be excluded. These factors reconfigured domestic boundaries, forcing an examination of the habits through which people came to know the everyday metabolism of their bodies.

A change in toilet technology decentered already alternative toileting practices, calling attention to the process whereby new habits are normalized in the home. …

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