The Compost Toilet

As mentioned in the earlier post, one of the most important things I’ve learned while living tiny and off-grid is that compost toilets aren’t really a big deal.

My compost toilet.

My compost toilet.

When people find out that I use a compost toilet, they are surprised and fascinated. It’s amazing just how much our society has become detached from such a basic human function. One of my heroes, Mark Boyle, once said: “If we had to clean our own drinking water, we probably wouldn’t shit in it,” and I truly believe the detachment we have with regard to our resources and our own bodies has led to the environmental problems we have today.

I believe another reason people are surprised to discover I use a compost toilet is because I’m a rather “prissy” person, and my fastidiousness when it comes to keeping clean clashes with their preconceived notions of what a compost toilet, and people who use one, are like. People assume compost toilets are like an outhouse or portable-potty: dark, dank, stinky, and dirty. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

As I researched different methods of composting “humanure”, I settled on the dry composting (also known as “waterless”) method.

There are different dry composting systems. There are toilets that are self-contained composting units that supposedly break down waste into compost quickly and have no smell, but it just didn’t make sense to be spending $2000 on a mechanical unit that was unattractive, filled with mechanical parts that can break/need replacing, and just speeds up a natural process.

There are incinerator toilets. But I found they were also expensive, noisy, messy, and would increase my dependency on propane.

So I went with the simple sawdust and plastic 5 gallon bucket design. The bucket is hidden by a wooden chamber lined with sheet vinyl for easy clean-up that has a regular toilet lid on top. And after more than a year of composting my waste via this method I can say with some authority that it’s not difficult, icky, or smelly. Emptying and cleaning the bucket is simple, the toilet chamber is easy to keep clean, and next year I will have new soil that I can use in my garden.

Compost directions.

Compost directions.

I put directions on the wall above the toilet for people who come to my home. You “do your business” as usual, then cover with multiple scoops of fresh sawdust from non-treated wood (I get my sawdust for free from a neighbor who mills wood on his property). The sawdust is what prevents odor – not the toilet lid (but the lid is kept down to deter pests). You can also use peat moss as cover material for the compost, and during the winter I also use some of the ash from my wood stove (after it has cooled). All three absorb odor and moisture, and once waste is covered up with the material, there is no smell.

The inside of the chamber is easy to clean up with a quick spray and wipe down. I rotate between two 5 gallon compost buckets and usually have to empty a bucket about twice a week. When the bucket is full, I remove it from the chamber through a small hidden door on the outside of the house and then dump it in the compost bin (which is also where I also put my kitchen compost). I then rinse out the bucket and pour that water into the compost bin, too. Once the bucket is emptied and rinsed, I let it dry out and place the second empty bucket back into the chamber, cover the bottom with an inch of sawdust, and it’s ready to be used again.

My composting area is made out of wooden pallets. I do a layer method: greens (a nitrogen layer which includes green grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, etc.), then browns (a carbon layer that includes dry grass, dry leaves, and dry hay or straw), then greens, then browns.  The colors are weird because some of the “greens” are brown in color, but the idea is that the carbon materials are more dead dry stuff and the nitrogen is hot rotting stuff. I keep long hay and grass to cover the top of the compost after it is dumped. This top layer of long hay/long greens helps control any odor from the decomposing compost pile.

I don’t know, maybe I’m different than my sustainable peers who have already written on the subject of dry compost toilets, but I did not find the transition difficult to make. I grumble a bit when I have to empty the bucket when I’m tired, or when it’s cold outside (I remember the first time I found the bucket contents had frozen in the winter – what the hell?!? Then I discovered that giving the bucket a couple kicks on the side loosened things up so it could be emptied without a problem), but that’s no different than the grumble people make when they have to take out the trash. The benefits of turning waste and food scraps into an important environmental resource that can be used to grow food far outweighs any perceived momentary inconvenience.


8 thoughts on “The Compost Toilet

  1. Karen Kieffer says:

    Thank you, Cassandra, for the wonderful and informative information on the simplest compost toilet a person can make/own. I’ve been looking at the more mechanical options, but I’m like you as I hate all the moving parts (which can break or something can go wrong). My only concern has been that I’ll be the only using it (mostly, as I’ll be living alone) and it will sit longer before needing to empty, but I’d really only worry about that in warmer weather, when it’s not as much a big deal to empty (not cold outside) :-). But it sounds like as long as you make sure to layer a scoop, or two, after each use, there isn’t a problem with smells or bugs…

    • Hi Karen! Thank you for your reply!

      This was my first summer with the compost toilet and I quickly learned that smell and bugs wasn’t an issue as long as you were generous with the sawdust, covered everything completely, and kept the toilet lid down. It’s also good to put a layer of hay or long grass over the compost bin that you dump the contents into – it keeps the odor and bugs away there, too. I use a pitchfork to move the hay/grass aside, dump the pail contents, then cover it again. 🙂

  2. Gail says:

    Hi Cassandra,

    Great information on your compost toilet. I am planning on one in my tiny on a trailer this year. My question is one that I’ve yet to find the answer to….and a bit awkward to ask, but here ya go… When I have to “go”, it always seems that I pee right after….and I know the urine is where all the smell can come from. Do you ever have this issue and if so, how do you handle it?


    • Hi Gail,

      Thank you for your comment. It’s not an awkward question at all – it’s an important one! You are right that urine is the odor culprit. That is where sawdust comes in. Sawdust is great for composting. It is an extra layer of carbon material that balances the nitrogen that urine adds to the compost. Sawdust covers waste thoroughly, absorbs liquid, and stops odor immediately.

      It is important to use sawdust and not wood shavings (like the kind people use for chicken coops). You want the fine dust because it covers completely, clings to the material, and absorbs the wetness and odor. Wood shavings just lay on top of everything.

      Ash from a wood stove can be used as well. It does not have sawdust’s absorption properties but it does stop odor immediately. But ash should be used sparingly if you plan on using the waste you compost for gardening. Ash kills bacteria – including the bacteria that is helpful for gardens/soil.

      Peat moss is another material that people use for composting. Like sawdust it covers waste material completely, absorbs liquid, and stops smell immediately – but more and more studies are showing the peat most is an unsustainable resource, so I do not use it.

  3. rhondamcknight says:

    I am not at all opposed to having a composting toilet inside. That actually surprises me, but I’m not. I like the idea of never having to call a plumber for a toilet ever again in life. What I’m nervous about is composting outside period. Do compost piles attract vermin? Seriously, the thought of going out to dump my bucket and seeing a snake or rat would send me to the moon!

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