Stinky, fly-infested pit toilets might someday disappear from America’s campgrounds, thanks to the dietary proclivities of a humble little worm.
Red wiggler worms have a unique talent. They gobble up organic material and turn it into rich topsoil. Some clever folks have harnessed this ability and are building privies as clean as they are green.
The technology, employed in developing countries for almost a decade, has proven a boon to public health. In Ghana, for example, wiggler-powered toilets helped eradicate dracunculiasis, a parasite-generated disease that once afflicted hundreds of thousands. At Camp Creek State Park and Forest in West Virginia, the toilets are giving campers and backpackers the unfamiliar experience of breathing fresh air while visiting a public privy.
“Guests who have used them have made many positive comments about them,” says Frank Ratcliffe, the superintendent at Camp Creek. “Think about that. We don’t usually get positive comments about any kind of restroom facility, let alone outhouses.”
Stephen Mecca, a Providence College physicist, pioneered the toilets’ design when he invented what he calls the “microflush valve.” Conventional toilets use gallons of water for each use; microflush toilets use just 8 ounces.
When flushed, liquid and solid waste products in the toilet bowl drop onto a rearward-slanting grate covered with straw, topsoil and oodles of ravenous red wigglers. Liquids filter through the soil and collect in a “soak hole,” a miniature leach field like those used in rural septic systems. Worms devour the solids and, within a week, transform them into fully composted topsoil. The slanted grate pitches the topsoil to the rear of the pit, where it’s readily harvested and used in gardens.
Mecca’s valve keeps offensive odors from rising up through the toilet itself. An exhaust stack at the rear of the loo allows the unpleasantness to dissipate well away from humans’ discerning noses.
At the heart of the system burrow the red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), also known as tiger worms, redworms, brandling worms, trout worms and panfish worms. Their species name, fetida (formerly foetida), comes from the pungent, foul-smelling liquid they excrete when handled roughly. Native to Europe, they’re now found on every continent except Antarctica. Organic gardeners might recognize them as “composting worms,” which can be purchased from worm farmers.
Red wigglers look a lot like standard-issue earthworms, but they’re not exactly dirt-dwellers. They prefer decaying organic material, and are most commonly found in rotting vegetation, compost heaps, and — you guessed it — manure piles.
The worms’ penchant for poo-gobbling helped work a minor miracle in Ghana, where poor sanitation contributed to a public health crisis that raged for decades. In 1989, an estimated 179,000 Ghanians suffered from dracunculiasis, a disease borne by parasitic Guinea worms.
Guinea worms’ larvae thrive inside water fleas that inhabit pools of contaminated water. People who drink the water ingest the larvae as they ingest the fleas. The larvae then grow into adult worms, 1 to 2 mm in diameter and up to 80 cm (31 inches!) long.
After a year of burrowing through their unfortunate hosts’ bodies, they slowly bore their way out. The best way to get rid of them is to wind them up on sticks as they crawl out, a process that take weeks. Pain from the wound can persist for months.
In 2009, workers for the Global Sustainable Aid Project (GSAP) began teaching Ghanians how to build microflush toilets. The privies, each built to process the wastes from two to three families, prevented sewage from contaminating water supplies. In 2015, officials from the World Health Organization certified that dracunculiasis had been eradicated within the country.
Red-wiggler technology made the jump from Africa to West Virginia in 2016, when a park visitor complained about a particularly foul-smelling Port-a-John. The man was a local member of Rotary International, which had worked with GSAP to bring microflush privies to Ghana.
“He said what we really needed was one of the toilets they helped build there,” says superintendent Ratcliffe.
Two local Rotary Clubs teamed up with GSAP and the park’s foundation to build that first outhouse. Ratcliffe says it was the first use of microflush technology for public use in the United States.
Completed in 2017, with a translucent roof and a cistern to collect rainwater for hand-washing and flushing, the bright, airy outhouse cost just $700 to construct. Visitors loved it so much Ratcliffe decided to build two more. State officials now want to extend red-wiggler technology into other parks, particularly in rustic camping areas.
“They’ll eliminate old-fashioned earthen pit toilets, the flies and the smell,” Ratcliffe says. “They’re a very clean, very neat solution to a long-time problem.”