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.