Compost Toilets, Are They Right For You?
Well, about a year and a half ago we made a turn onto the Humanure Highway. Yep, you read correctly. We just became sick and tired of the thought of putting our excrement into perfectly great clean drinking water, and then flushing it…’away’. That is what society does with things we don’t want any more, we send them, or throw them, away.
I guess it all began when we’d read an article explaining how scarce water is these days, clear clean drinking water, in many parts of the world, even in segments of the United States. It seemed somewhat nonsensical then to use drinking water as toilet water. Something we all do and don’t even think about. But think about it for a second: urinating and defecating into perfectly good drinking water – it seems rather absurd, especially when so many people in the world have none, or have to travel distances to acquire it. We pretty much were aware of that, but what can a person do about it? Is it even a problem for us? No, not really for us. We have our own private well that goes deep into the ground, and we just had the water tested and it passed with flying colors. We value our clean, non-floridated, well water. So then, why would we want to go to the extra lengths required to run a compost toilet system, otherwise known as a dry toilet? Principle, that’s why.
One day a couple of years ago we were at the lumber yard getting some supplies and there it was, on display, a ‘composting’ toilet. Composting. Now, how the devil did it do that? It looked rather like any other commode. It carried a rather hefty price tag, too. We did not even know that such a thing existed until then. It could be the answer to our dilemma of not spoiling good drinking water. We did some research only to find that this particular brand had some issues. And you had to purchase these little bags from the manufacturer. We did not like that facet of the design, so we held off. But, supposedly the unit turned the spoils of the human into compost right there in the base of the thing. Somehow I was not impressed; that didn’t seem possible to me.
That fall we visited the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine, and they had a few different composting toilets on display. For the most part they were humongous and very expensive. These did not seem to be our answer, either. So we put the idea on the back burner.
Then the following summer, two years ago it was, we visited Homestead Days at the Common Ground fairgrounds, and someone had a ‘compost’ toilet. Notice I did not say ‘composting’. It was a homemade thing, looking handsome, made of pine, something I felt I could build. This design made a lot of sense to me. It is up to the user, though, to remove a bucket of human ‘waste’, and take this to a very carefully managed compost bin. What do you do then, you might ask. I’ll get to that in a minute.
This system requires three things to work well: The place where you sit to do your ‘business’, a cover material (such as sawdust), and a well-managed compost bin or three. So, the way it works is this: You leave your deposit, and cover it with sawdust, one scoop for number one, and two scoops of sawdust for number two. There is no smell whatsoever. I am serious. It couldn’t be any easier. Really. How do I know? I built one, and that is what we now use. At first we had it in the pantry, and just experimented with it. But it really worked well. And as far as the outdoor composting part? No smell there either. We use the lasagne method of layering the compost bin, as I mentioned last week, which is how you manage one anyway. It really works.
Then what happens? I don’t know. I’ve never done this before. I will take the front of the compost bin off and screen the contents, and see what we have. I expect it to be pretty good compost, or I would not have gone this route to begin with. I might even send a sample of the compost away to have it tested. When I built the first compost bin, I set it up way back near the woods, figuring to get it a good distance away from the house. But it does not emit an odor. None whatsoever. And in the house, like I said earlier, no smell at all. I am really quite pleased with this.
You see, we have come to think of human waste as a resource. I don’t have room enough here to go into detail, but basically we are part of a cycle, and returning our human excrement to the earth from which it came is part of that cycle. It is nutritive to our soils, but toxic when dumped in the oceans. When vegetable crops are produced from soil, it is best if the organic residues return to same. And that is exactly what we do at our homestead. We have special compost bins, three of them (the photo I uploaded with last weeks post was of those bins), dedicated to this recycling of human resource. And so, when done properly, this material turns to compost. We use three buckets. When they are almost full, the person in charge (that would be me) of the composting takes them down to the bins for proper layering in the compost heap-in-progress. It takes about six months for the two of us to fill a four foot wide by four foot deep, by four foot high compost bin, when filling with this resource (notice I didn’t refer to it as waste this time) and layering with a brown material, old goat bedding in our case. This compost heap heats up nicely. You want about 120F. and we usually have a temperature of between 120 to 160F. This is left alone after it has been filled, for a year. Our first finished one will be completed on August 31 of this year. We began filling it February 1 of last year.
No doubt about it, making a compost toilet is quite inexpensive, and simple enough that even I could make one. You do, though, need to be very diligent and smart about composting. Your compost bins and your compost system are the key to the entire works.
So in closing, you might ask, what do you DO with that ‘compost’ when you have waited your year for it to break down? That, my friends will be revealed in a September blog posting. Meanwhile, please be sure to check back next week when I discuss goats again, with the emphasis on the deciding phase, whether or not goats are right for you and your homestead.