Compost toilets: introduction

“The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in drinking water and those who don’t.” – Joe Jenkins, the Humanure Handbook

What are compost toilets?

Compost toilets are dry or waterless toilets, i.e. they don’t use water to take the waste somewhere else. They allow natural processes to produce useful compost, after a resting period depending on the type of toilet.

DIY compost loos

There are usually two chambers – one in use and one resting. A typical toilet would use one chamber for a year, then change to the second chamber and allow the first to decompose for a year before emptying. They don’t smell, as long as there is a vent pipe, and a drain to take away excess liquid.

Compost loos don’t have to be outdoors; if done properly, there will be no smells, and an indoor toilet will be more convenient in the winter.

A handful of a soak (straw or sawdust etc.) is dropped into the toilet after each use. This is because bacteria like to eat a balanced diet of carbon and nitrogen, and as human waste contains a lot of nitrogen, if they don’t get enough carboniferous material (like sawdust, straw, hay, shredded paper) they will give off excess nitrogen in the form of ammonia, which makes the loo smelly.

The soak allows oxygen into the pile, and absorbs liquid. This allows the pile to decompose aerobically to produce nitrates, phosphates and sulphates. Without a soak, the pile will decompose anaerobically and produce methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide – all smelly and not very useful.

Henry Moule’s earth closet almost became the standard Western toilet in the 19th century.

Human pathogens don’t like conditions outside the human body, so almost all will be dead after a few hours. Only one type of roundworm egg can survive a year-long decomposition period, but to cause problems for humans, it has to survive decomposition and being outside in the soil, after which it has to get onto the food plant, and stay there after washing and cooking. You’re taking much more of a risk every time you get into a car. But even so, you could use the compost on fruit trees and bushes rather than in the vegetable garden if you like.

A tree bog is a type of outdoor compost toilet with nutrient-hungry trees planted around it. Solid and liquid wastes are simply deposited into a hole in the ground, and the tree roots absorb the nutrients.

Cross-section of one chamber of a basic indoor compost toilet.

Another, simpler compost loo system is based on Joe Jenkins’ ‘humanure’ idea. It’s low-cost, extremely simple and it works. The downside is that there are buckets to be emptied. Here’s an article about some friends of ours who used the humanure system for many years.

Off-the-shelf compost loos

You can also buy off-the-shelf toilets with one chamber – for inside or outside use.

The Separett toilet is small enough to be used in a camper van or on a boat.

What are the benefits of compost toilets?

Main benefits

    • The solid waste is dealt with on site, and doesn’t have to be treated with chemicals in sewage farms, or end up in waterways, where it causes pollution and algal blooms.
    • Saves water – you don’t have to use one resource (pure drinking water) to flush away another (fertiliser).
    • Organic matter is allowed to go back to the soil where it belongs, improving soil structure and nutrition.

Waterless urinal with a HepvO valve – the simplest way to convert a conventional urinal to a waterless one.

Other benefits

  • No chemical cleaners or bleaches are used in the toilet.
  • They don’t contribute to the sewage sludge that is often dumped in landfill, or more controversially, put on to agricultural land uncomposted.
  • As long as the decomposition is aerobic, there will be no greenhouse gas emissions.
  • No electricity needed.
  • Very low resource use – no pipes are needed to transport waste to a sewage farm, and no truck needed to remove solid waste.

Introduction to our compost toilets online course.

What can I do?

Installing a compost toilet

There are many different types that you can buy. Distributors will change – search online for:

  • Separett – looks like an conventional toilet.
  • Air Head – small enough to be used in a camper van or boat.
  • Rota-loo – several chambers on a turntable, includes a fan.
  • Biolet – small toilets, some models electric, some not.
  • Clivus multrum – one large chamber, vent with fan.
  • Sun-mar – small, electricity used to evaporate liquids.
  • Natsol – twin-vault loos with stainless steel urine separator.
  • Kazuba – high-capacity, for allotments, public spaces, off-grid sites.

Emptying one of the chambers.

There are many more, with new models coming on to the market each year – do the research to find which model might suit you best.

Alternatively, you can build your own. This will work out cheaper, and there is no need for electricity. The components of a basic unit are: two chambers, platform, vent, hatch, and removable seat. Our book explains how to do it. Going on a course might be a good idea too.

Using a compost toilet
A compost loo is not a flush-and-forget system. A DIY compost loo needs to be checked every day to see that no problems are developing. If necessary, an ingenious fly-catcher can be made from a glass jar and a little cone made from perspex. Ensure that there’s a bucket with ‘soak’ (e.g. sawdust) next to the loo. To stop a peak developing, it may have to be ‘knocked’ every couple of months with a rake or hoe either via the hatch or seat – this may not be necessary though.

Keep a bucket of ‘soak’ next to the toilet, to throw in after every use. This can be straw, sawdust, woodchips etc.

Waterless urinals work well with compost toilets, as urine can be used as a completely-pathogen-free fertiliser, and it stops the compost toilet from becoming too wet. Waterless urinals can be adapted for female use too. Some compost toilets are designed to separate urine from solids.

If your toilet is going to be used by people unfamiliar with compost loos, you might want to put up a notice explaining how to use it.

After the toilet has been used for a year, remove the seat and blank off the hole. Attach the seat to the second chamber. One year later, empty the first chamber and move the seat back. The material from the chamber will be indistinguishable from bag compost bought from a garden centre if it’s done properly. We’ve taken compost from a compost loo and from a garden centre to events around the country, and people couldn’t tell the difference.

Funky outdoor compost loo at a summer party.

The procedure is different for various kinds of manufactured toilets. See here for a step-by-step guide to getting and using a compost loo, and see our online course for more detailed info and videos.


Whilst you’re here, why not take a look at the other utilities topics available? And don’t forget to visit our main topics page to explore over 200 aspects of low-impact living and our homepage to learn more about why we do what we do.


The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.

patrick-boylan

Patrick Boylan has had a long-term interest in the environment. A graduate of the Trinity College Dublin Botany Department in 1998, he founded Toilet Revolution in 2012. Patrick has researched manufacturers the world over, and Toilet Revolution have hundreds of composting toilet installations around the UK and Ireland.

 

Cordelia Rowlatt of Vallis Veg lives off-grid on a small piece of land. She has built and used many compost toilets for different situations, as well as lived toilet free when travelling with a gypsy circus – lesson learned: never take your toilet for granted! She also uses processed urine and faeces to feed crops safely. She’s our online course tutor


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