Poop into the Fire with Incinerating Toilets

In action! Tom Sachs/Incinolet

I spent yesterday afternoon researching toilet innovations for a future article and, as interesting as pooping technology gets, I wasn't expecting it to result in a blog post. But here we are, considering the fact that INCNERATING TOILETS EXIST.

Yes, while some of you may think nothing of pooping into a mechanical box of fire, the prospect is a rather new idea for yours truly. A lot of it probably ties into the fact that most humans don't really think about toilet technology -- about how it can improve or, indeed, the fact that homo sapiens evolved to defecate from a squatting position and not seated upon a porcelain chair.

But as it turns out, we've been pooping into the fire for decades -- and early designs apparently date back to the early 1900s. Hey, the world was increasingly run on gas-powered ingenuity, so why wouldn't we have gas-powered commodes to immolate our vile leavings? Today, these apparently pop up aboard trains, inside military camps and in various cold weather climates where water-based disposal and/or reasonable sewage treatment aren't possible.

Some incinerating toilets (such as Denmark's Scanlet or Canada's Storburn) use propane, others (such as the Texan Incinolet) use electricity. Either way, the result is the same: toilet paper and human waste burn to ash at the flip of a switch. Let's watch a video from incinolet that really breaks down how one of these machines works.

WARNING: Contains footage of flaming excrement

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hosts a handy PDF guide on the pros and cons of incineration toilets. Here's how it breaks down:

Advantages • Requires no water. • Produces a fine, sterile ash (one tablespoon per average use) • Are portable and simple to install • Can be installed in remote, unheated shelters • Can operate in freezing temperatures. • Relatively odorless

Disadvantages • Incineration destroys waste nutrients in the waste, making ash inadequate for replenishing soil. • Incinerating requires energy, resulting in higher average energy costs. • Both electric generation and propane designs produce air pollutants. • Anti-foam agents, catalysts or other additives typically required for use. • Some models cannot be used while the incineration cycle is in progress.

It has also come to my attention that my coworker John Fuller wrote about this for the show "Dirty Jobs." Read about in "Wanted: Turd Burner."

UPDATE 5/2/2013: The original youtube version is no longer available, but the director's cut (by Tom Sachs) is now included.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.