You’re at a Portland street fair, and it’s, like, awesome: free cheese samples, street tacos, some sort of crazy kombucha. Inevitably, things go south—you know what we mean—and, with a shudder, you side-eye the blue box out back.
“People dread the chemical port-a-potty,” says Nicole Cousino, a former sustainability coordinator for the City of Gresham. In 2015, Cousino borrowed a page from the biofuel movement of the late 1990s—used cooking oil converted to run VWs and the like—to launch Nature Commode: a start-up focused on reshaping attitudes toward another kind of “waste.” Replacing the toxic chemical mystery solution with pure sawdust, users “flush” after each use by heaping fresh sawdust in their wake.
“We’re like the microbrew when everyone’s accustomed to Coors Light," says Cousino. “We’re the microbrewery of port-a-potties.”
Nature Commode has so far targeted outdoor events. Cousino says her well-ventilated steel-and-fabric commodes have facilitated compostable “contributions” from more than 150,000 people to date, from private weddings to the Portland Night Market. At the Vancouver Recycled Arts Fair—Nature Commode’s first client—a vendor had no idea his booth was operating next to a toilet. For now, Cousino focused on developing longer-term toilets for all-weather construction sites, and convincing ever more event organizers that it’s worth ditching that low-cost but loathsome “plastic box.” Eventually, Cousino hopes to also profit from the byproduct of her service—selling fertilizer-grade human fluids rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium to farmers.
“Human fluids carry cultural taboo, unacceptability, discomfort, this whole gamut of problems,” she says. “But there are amazing embedded values within those, uh, streams.”