Are ‘Green’ Portable Restrooms the New Frontier in Public Sanitation?

Oregon's Nature Commode is disrupting its local portable restroom industry one scoop of sawdust at a time

Are ‘Green’ Portable Restrooms the New Frontier in Public Sanitation?

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Nature Commode's portable restrooms often make users do a double take, but it’s all part of a larger plan to changer consumers’ minds about what portable sanitation can be.

“We want to change the whole way of thinking of the role we play in the environment,” says Nicole Cousino, founder and CEO of Nature Commode in Portland, Oregon. “That’s a radical shift from our competition. I want to provide an education.”

Nature Commode’s handmade units are similar to compost toilets. The pop-up tentlike facade houses a wooden seat and 20-gallon container that uses no chemicals — only sawdust — to conceal the waste and mask potential odors.

These “dry toilets” are more sustainable in terms of construction with no plastic used. Cousino also notes that human waste, especially urine, is nutrient rich and can be used as fertilizer.

“There’s a lot of cultural taboo about what passes through our body,” Cousino admits. “But it has a lot of nutrients.” She believes in sustainability so much that signs hang on the front of each urinal unit noting, “Your Pee is Fertilizer.”

The company website touts, “Urine has a similar composition to commercial fertilizers. Nature Commode treats all collected urine so it can be safely used to fertilize crops in the region.”

While the company now takes all its solid waste to a wastewater treatment plant, eventually, the company plans to have the means to process all of collected solids into Class A compost.

The plant has a lagoon system, allowing it to accept waste with sawdust. “[The sawdust] does create some challenges,” says Cousino, as other treatment plants are not equipped to process the sawdust-waste mixture.

Cousino admits they have run into some regulatory challenges. “The regulations were written with the need for pumper trucks. But we aren’t pumpers.” 

The 20-gallon containers — which are graded to handle hazardous waste — are removed full, then sealed and transported. Multiple containers are emptied into a larger holding tank on a trailer that delivers to the treatment plant.

The recycling system is all part of a plan to “provide a nicer toilet but also shift away from linear waste systems.” Cousino says. “I don’t want to put down what others are doing.” But she admits that Nature Commode’s creations are a bit of a disruptor in a fairly established industry. 

A greener vision

Rich Haskell, Nature Commode's lead designer and fabricator, and Nicole Cousino, owner, showcase the company's newest unit, The Rhododendron, designed for construction sites and long-term placements. Photos courtesy of Nature Commode.
Rich Haskell, Nature Commode's lead designer and fabricator, and Nicole Cousino, owner, showcase the company's newest unit, The Rhododendron, designed for construction sites and long-term placements. Photos courtesy of Nature Commode.

Nature Commode started in 2015 and now has about 30 handmade units, separate urinal units, an 8-by-8-foot ADA-compliant unit, and five hand-wash stations. It also has a small restroom trailer, the 7-by-16-foot Cabin Commode, made from reclaimed building materials. The trailer includes one spacious stall and two standard-sized stalls; each includes a toilet and urinal.

“We intentionally designed the restrooms ourselves so they would have a distinct look … and get away from plastic,” says Cousino, an artist whose husband has a background in fabrication. “The two of us collaborated on the design.”

The 3-by-4-foot units have a steel frame with fabric sides that can be folded down to flat pack. “They’re basically little tents,” Cousino says. But unlike your average tent, the commodes have a secure frame for the door. “We’re trying to give a completely different feel when you walk in.

“I surveyed probably 200 women at events [wondering] if women would feel more vulnerable,” she adds. “The majority said they felt safer.” Many also reported not feeling as claustrophobic as they do in a traditional plastic unit.

One of the initial concerns from customers has been the ability of the units to suppress odors using only sawdust in the waste receptacles.

“Sawdust is carbon-based, and it overwhelms the nitrogen,” Cousino says. “It controls [both] the vision and the odor.”

Users simply add a scoop of sawdust to the container before and after using. “Even at the end of a very hot day, you can go in and there’s no odor.” But Cousino admits that users are often skeptical at first. “A lot of the public is not familiar with such toilets. Some people don’t want to try something new.”

But she notes that attendants are on hand at each venue to help educate users about both the use and benefits of the units.

“[Promoters] love the fact that we are on site. … They never run out of supplies. It’s often the first time they’re thanked for having nicer toilets.”

Cousino also believes the aesthetics of the units adds to the atmosphere of the overall event. 

Nature Commode's Popup Porta folds flat and relies on sawdust, not chemicals, to prevent odors.
Nature Commode's Popup Porta folds flat and relies on sawdust, not chemicals, to prevent odors.

While Nature Commode is a small business, Cousino is studying their entire model — branding, treatment process, units, etc. — and looking at how they can possibly expand the business’s reach and vision. “Can it scale? We think so.”

“We see there is increasing interest,” she says, especially in eliminating a reliance on chemicals and plastic.

Down the road, Cousino states Nature Commode could explore partnerships or even franchises in other parts of the U.S. But for now, the focus is on perfecting the brand and spreading the message of sustainability.

And that’s the question she poses to the industry, “How can we rethink what we provide?”



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