Composting pet waste in a very cold climate?
April 23, 2009 6:47 PM   Subscribe

We live in Vermont and have very long winters. I would like to start composting our pet waste (we have two smallish dogs) but all of the options I have found online are in-ground septic-type systems that do not function when soil temperatures drop. I am specifically looking for advice from someone who has discovered or built a system that operates reliably in colder temperatures.

Most dog poop disposal options seem to rely on warm ground temps, water and enzymes to activate the decomposition process. While this would work during our summers, it would not work for about half the year.

The only product I can find that seems to have a chance of working requires a 6-7 foot hole to be dug below it to get below the frost line in winter, and even then I am not optimistic that this would work. There's no way to guarantee that the soil temps would not drop below the required 40 degrees F, and I'm not even sure we can dig that deep since we live on top of a rock and have marginal topsoil.

One thought I had was to buy a composting camp toilet (the type that plugs into a power outlet and sortof bakes the waste into powder) and have that in the basement or utility room. Has anyone tried this for dog poop? Would the smell kill us? Any other ideas out there? Real-world anecdotes and experiences appreciated. Thanks!
posted by turtlegirl to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Unless you want to compost the waste inside your home (and you probably don't, because real composting toilets costs thousands), you won't be able to compost the waste during the winter. Fortunately, winter provides excellent storage conditions for waste. Just keep doing whatever you plan to do with the waste until it melts in the spring time, at which point you can throw a whole lot of enzymes in or whatever you need to do and get the composting going. Make sure your container is large enough to contain a winter's worth of frozen dog poo and be aware that your pile might start to stink a bit in the spring if you don't get to it fast enough.
posted by ssg at 7:05 PM on April 23, 2009

Also, layering the fresh poo with sawdust over the winter may help decomposition and prevent potential stink problems in the spring.
posted by ssg at 7:08 PM on April 23, 2009

I'd try following the methods outlined in the awesome humanure handbook. I think they suggest using sawdust like ssg suggested, and it's full of all sorts of other great information about composting.
posted by glip at 7:35 PM on April 23, 2009

Regarding plug in toilets, I ask this: What is the net environmental impact for using Vermont Yankee to power a composting toilet?

My inlaws are in Vermont (Orange/Windsor County line) and we spend significant time there during the winter. When we go up to visit there are 4 dogs there - 2 of ours, 2 of theirs. Considering the winter two years ago - there is no way I could possibly imagine their poop not freezing and me consequently shoveling it all in the spring when it thaws out.

In a different direction, I have spent a good amount of time in the Canadian Rockies which have a great series of alpine huts which each have stand alone outhouses. These huts and outhouses are used year round. Each outhouse has several 100 galon (I think) buckets. When several buckets are filled, they're loaded onto a pallet (by hand) and then helicoptered away. Having rotated two buckets out (not having moved a bucket out of the outhouse) ther is no way in hell that I could ever ever condone having poop stored in my home. It took 2-4 people to move each bucket, and nobody - nobody felt clean until a lot of bleach was used. Had one of those buckets spilled it would have been an environmental disaster (seriously, in '00 or '01 one bucket fell off a pallet that a helicopter was carrying just east of the Bow Hut and lead to a massively invasive fungial bloom). If it spills in your house - there is nothing nothing that will make you eco friendly about cleaning it up properly.

So, I'd reccommend either build a structure outdoors to roof over it and hold it through the winter, planning to turn it in the spring when the brick of poop thaws. Or, I'd make peace with picking it up and composting it in the spring...
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:40 PM on April 23, 2009

They've done a bunch of studies in Alaska, specifically NRCS and the Univ of AK, Fairbanks have come up with a method for composting sled dog waste at dog lots. This link goes to a pdf presentation on the study and results.

You can contact the researchers for more info, I would suggest starting with NRCS. it's their job to interface with the public about stuff like this and it'll be easier to get hold of them.
posted by fshgrl at 9:08 PM on April 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I live in Maine. Dog poop goes in a wire container, layered with leaves. If there's any aroma, add more leaves(pine needles, sawdust, whatever you've got). The resulting compost goes on flowerbeds, not food plants. Dog poo has lots of unsafe bacteria, and home composting is not reliably hot enough to kill it. At my old house, some dog poo went directly into a bed of daylilies, which grew nicely. In any case, I ended up with a nice flowerbed in an area where the soil had been awful, pretty much devoid of organic matter, and it's now blooming.

The wire container I use was probably used to burn leaves, back when that was legal. You can just get a couple yards of mesh fencing, attach the ends to make a loop, and put it on the ground. Composting is really easy, and doesn't require buying much.

Every spring, as the snow melts, the poopsicles emerge. Do not neglect to harvest them as they emerge from the snow, or the back yard will be very nasty, and your dogs will roll in it.
posted by theora55 at 7:53 AM on April 24, 2009

Thanks everyone! We're going to try outside composting this summer, and a frozen compost pile over winter that will hopefully not get to nasty by next spring. We'll see what happens.
posted by turtlegirl at 9:18 AM on May 24, 2009

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