NOLS grads take waste disposal to a higher level
By Nate Kratz
Reprinted from The Leader, Winter 2000, Vol. 16, No. 2
There are some aspects of a NOLS course which, while important, lack some of the aesthetic beauty depicted in the school publications. One subject in this category is the matter of waste disposal on courses; it happens, and NOLS is proud of our ecologically friendly approaches to the matter, but it is hardly something that is extolled in glossy photo spreads in the catalog.
While sound, Leave No Trace ethics regarding waste are not especially elegant ones. After experiencing a course and learning about the limited options available for waste disposal, two graduates have set out to improve those options, each in his own way.
"I dreamed for years about becoming a park ranger," Paul Morris recollected, "but by the time I hit college I realized that there weren't many jobs in that field, so I switched to agriculture." He chuckled as he added, "I didn't do much with that either, there was a slump in agriculture when I graduated so I actually ended up working for six years in a hardware store!"
That work lasted until 1987, when Morris realized that, "Unless I became a member of the family, I wasn't going to get much further in that hardware store." Instead of considering his hardware store matrimony options he decided he'd take a NOLS course.
"My friend Greg Prevo had taken a mountaineering course in 1974 out of Lander. After hearing his stories for ten years I finally decided I wanted to take one myself." So he quit his job and headed to the Pacific Northwest, where he spent 30 days in Olympic National Forest on a course instructed by Willy Warner and Carol Snetsinger.
"I was hurtin' like a big dog for the first week, but even then the experience was unbelievable! I would take another one in a minute if I had the time and money." Although the experience didn't get him into his current business, Morris explained, "It did help direct my attention to recreational and remote living areas."
After the course, Morris worked for several firms selling bacterial products that rapidly broke down cow manure. A chance remark by a friend led him to branch out. "In 1996, I went to visit a friend who was working in a fire lookout tower in Glacier National Park." As he was explaining how his products work to eliminate cow waste and odor, his friend asked him if he could make some for the pit toilet near her tower. He sent her a batch, and her enthusiastic reply that "It's fantastic!" convinced him that his product might be commercially viable.
Today Paul Morris and his company, Microbialogic, have developed an array of microbial treatments for human waste, which can be used for toilets on river rafts, pit toilets, and even on recreational vehicles and houseboats. He currently supplies numerous rafting companies, and several government agencies with the product.
Besides having a growing business, Morris said that his work is rewarding in another way as well. "As more and more people are heading into the wilderness, odor and human waste will only increase as our facilities are overtaxed. I notice that a lot of people don't like to talk about it; I attribute my NOLS experience to making me aware of the situation."
Like Paul Morris, Paul Becker has also worked to improve conditions in the field. For Becker, the inspiration was his love of watersports, especially kayaking and rafting. The 53 year old plastics manufacturer from Kansas has spent a great deal of time on rivers in the Western United States After one raft trip down the Colorado River in 1993, Becker's brother challenged him to make a better raft toilet. "My brother asked me if I could make a washable, reusable toilet for use on the river." With that idea in mind Becker went back to Kansas and soon developed the "Ammo Box" named after the Army surplus ammo cans that were commonly used on rafts.
Becker's youngest son had taken a NOLS course in the summer of 1992, and raved about it. By the summer of 1995, Paul Becker decided he'd give it a try and signed up for a sea-kayaking course in Alaska.
"There were 12 of us," he recalled, "ranging between [the ages of] 20 and 49. And I was 49. There were three of us in our 40's, a few 30's, and the rest in their 20's. We all learned a lot! Betsey Dalbeck was one of my tentmates for the first part and she was sure a hoot! Even though I'd spent a lot of time in the woods, it really was a life-changing experience; as I gather many of those courses are."
One of the few unpleasant things about his course was the fact that "We actually saw quite a bit of human waste on that trip that people had left on the beaches." That experience gave Becker the idea for a smaller folding version of his "Ammo Box" called the "Boom Box." When folded the small box resembles a portable music player.
His production of portable toilets has had some side benefits for Becker as well. When the 1998 Everest Environmental expedition asked about his toilets, Becker told them he'd donate a few if he could come on the trip. "They were interested in showing that they were able to take care of their own waste."
Becker's company manufactures many containers, of which toilets are a small part. Many of the other products are food containers. "Really, everything I manufacture is a food container," he joked, "it just depends whether you're talking about old food or new food!"
Both Paul Morris and Paul Becker continue to be involved with NOLS, and both supply their products for use at the school. As Becker says, "It sounds real corny but being able to do something feels really nice." Morris agrees: "The contribution is more important than the money."
Both Paul Morris and Paul Becker have products available on the web. Morris' site is www.microbialogic.com, and Becker is at www.eco-safe.net.