A few months ago, I posted on humanure and liquid gold as ecological resources. Many are once again realizing that our own waste is a precious resource, not something deserving of a flush. As a quick review, humanure refers to human feces that has been composted down (usually over a two-year period). Liquid gold refers to human urine which can be used immediately (diluted to 10%) as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. This waste-cycling practice allows us to reconnect our own elimination cycle with the cycles of nature and bring nutrients back into our landscape rather than into toxic municipal septic systems. Working with our own waste is a very powerful practice for rejoining the cycles of nutrients and flows in the living landscape.
And so, as a follow-up to that post, I’d like to share the creation of a compost toilet for my small rental house (as part of my own experiments in rental house permaculture practice). This post will cover overcoming challenges, and basic plans for construction, decoration, and use. I also think this is a wonderful post for the civil new year, and the phrase “out with the old, in with the new” very much comes to mind!
Overcoming Mental, Collecting, and Composting Challenges
The idea of collecting and composting humanure includes several challenges we have to overcome: mental challenges and the physical challenge of collecting and composting your waste. I’ll explore each of these first before getting to the specific compost toilet construction and design.
When I mentioned that I was thinking about building a compost toilet to my family and certain friends, a number of them expressed a great deal of skepticism and doubt, refusing to use it even before it was in place. Elimination is a very taboo topic. The idea of handling a bucket of your own waste, and doing anything with it, beyond flushing it “away” is mentally challenging. For one, we have to overcome years and years of social conditioning about what “appropriate bathroom behavior” is–and that social conditioning suggests that the best thing we can do is to quietly do our business, to flush it, and move about your day. There’s also the assumption that it will smell bad or be gross to do anything else.
Even if we can wrap our intellectual minds around embracing the bucket (as it makes a lot of sense, as I detailed in my earlier post), we still have to emotionally accept it and overcome that conditioning. After visiting various ecovillages, homesteads, and sustainable living centers, I had already had first-hand experience in using composting toilets, and with that experience, I decided they were pretty cool and worth pursuing. But more than that, I knew that getting a handle on my own waste streams would allow me to deepen my own nature-based spiritual practice and directly work to regenerate the land by returning nutrients rather than discarding them. So the compost toilet was in line not only with my desire to honor and regenerate the land, but in line with my spiritual ethics. So these things, along with some positive direct experiences helped me to overcome some of the mental barriers, especially emotional ones.
But what about the emotional and intellectual barriers folks coming to my house who have never used one before? How could I get them to embrace the bucket? The truth is, based on where I was putting it, even if they didn’t use it, they were going to come face to face with it in my bathroom (see photo). Perhaps pooping in a “fun” toilet would make the difference. I decided that I would create the most beautiful, inviting, whimsical and incredible toilet they had ever seen. I wanted to create something that people would be excited and overjoyed to poop in. Heck, I wanted to create something that I wanted to be excited and overjoyed to use! In other words, I would create an artful toilet that was inviting and fun to use, not a plain old seat with a bucket!
With the mental challenges considered, there is, of course, the physical reality. Most of us hopefully don’t have a problem with the elimination of waste, but rather the collection of waste and the composting of the waste. The collection is, for a renter, the much more simple of the two. Simple compost toilet boxes, which are a wooden box, lid, and bucket with cover material, are really quite elegant to use. In fact, in my bathroom, I had a tiny bit of room for a simple compost toilet collection bucket (inspired by the “lovable loo” and the Humanure Handbook).
The composting itself was my final main hurdle. I live in a small house with a tiny yard that is rented; I can’t be composting my own humanure on land I don’t own (especially less than 10 feet from my neighbors). And so, I don’t have the option of storing it outside. And I certainly don’t want to store it in my scary and often-flooded basement. I seemed stuck–how to proceed? Then, a friend of mine told me she was building a humanure composting system just outside of town on a small piece of land she is working. She invited me to make contributions, both because more nutrients is a good thing and because she was having difficulty getting her pile up to the desired temperature. This is community building and teamwork at its best. Since her location is only a few miles outside of town and I got that way often to visit the woods or my family, I realized that it was time to embrace the bucket!
Constructing the Toilet (Collection)
My very first attempt at a composting toilet was going to be very simple: a bucket with an attachable lid designed for 5-gallon buckets. The fact that I had a tiny bathroom contributed to this early choice–there wasn’t really anywhere for the compost toilet to go if it were bulky (as the photo above shows). Some time ago, I had ordered a small lid/seat that would fit a five-gallon bucket and was excited to try it out. My excitement immediately dwindled upon attaching it to the bucket. Sitting on it reinforced my dread: it was small, uncomfortable, and not user-friendly. Nobody would want to poop on that little seat; heck, even I didn’t want to poop using that little seat. So with this plan scrapped, it became obvious that building a more functional composting toilet was in order.
It turns out, building a more functional and comfortable basic compost toilet is a really simple thing: it usually has some kind of outer box that holds the bucket in place, offers a lid, and has a regular toilet seat that is reasonable to sit on to use. Witnessing my concerns about the bucket seat I had purchased, the friend offered to build the compost toilet. The following few paragraphs include his instructions and measurements (although note that this toilet was built specifically for my small bathroom, so you might want to change the measurements).
Here is a list of the supplies:
- 1/2 sheet of plywood (if you are painting it, you can get a sheet that is finished nicely on one side and not as nice on the other); if you are staining it and you want the grain all the same you’ll need more than 1/2 a sheet.
- 3 five-gallon buckets (assuming off-site storage). Two of these are collection buckets (so you have a spare) and one is for storing your cover material. Sometimes, Asian restaurants may have these available for free as they often purchase soy sauce in 5-gallon buckets.
- Toilet seat (the one pictured was less than $10; you can also get this used)
- Two hinges, wood screws, wood glue, clamps, and basic tools (hammer, screwdriver, table saw)
The following is the cut sheet for the compost toilet based on the height of the bucket and the space I had available in the bathroom. This assumes one standard half-sheet of plywood.
The box was constructed by having the four sides rest on the floor and adding the bottom of the box inside the four sides. This is to prevent screws from digging into the floor. The top of the seat, since it has to lift off and bear weight, sits on all four sides.
To get the hole for the bucket, my friend simply traced the outside of the bucket onto the lid and cut it open with a jigsaw. He assembled it all and brought it back to my house for cat inspection. The felines approved.
Painting the Toilet
After the basic construction of the toilet was complete, it was time to paint–I knew these artistic skills would come in handy! Part of it was that I wanted it fun, colorful and inviting. The second part of it was that I wanted the toilet to be educational–so when you used it, you understood the nature of what your contributions. After working on some sketches, I was ready to begin.
The toilet seat I decorated was a wooden one the Philosopher purchased at the hardware store for less than $10. It had a seal coating on it that I had to sand off (do this work outside with good ventilation and use a mask). Once I had the toilet seat sanded, I began painting the seat, the box, and the rest! I wanted messages that were inspirational but not overtly intense, so I wove them into the box throughout, making it fun, whimsical, and inviting.
I used regular acrylic paints to paint the seat. I knew that a good seal was critically important for protection and cleaning, so I used three coats of clear acrylic sealer (which also needs to be done outside). This would allow me to clean the seat and protect my paint.
I wanted whimsical designs and messaging, things that allowed people to understand more the cycle of waste and nutrients as well as invite them to try it out.
After painting and sealing, we put the toilet together and admired our work. What began as a simple idea in our minds turned into a masterpiece both of us could be proud of!
The toilet was now ready to use–but first, I’m going to cover a few considerations for compost toilets as I generally understand them.
Preparing to Use the Toilet: Some Considerations
You’ll need to gather a few materials and make a few considerations for your compost toilet, specifically, how much of your business you are going to be doing in the compost toilet and what your cover material will be. These are two related considerations: cover materials vary in absorbancy, and that will determine how much urine you can add to your toilet.
The first is finding a carbon-based cover material. Currently, I am using sawdust from a friend’s woodshop (free resource, and he doesn’t use treated wood, but it is very fine and creates dust) as well as partially composted wood chips from my parents’ house (free resource from local tree work). In the future, I’d also like to experiment with shredded fall leaves.
Now, absorbency is also important. From a good friend who was living in a camper and moving around the country, and using her compost toilet full time, I learned the following: sawdust, woodchips, and the like aren’t very absorbent. If you are going to be doing all of your business in your compost toilet, something more absorbent is necessary. Peat moss or sphagnum moss was her choice, although she acknowledged that that’s the best she could get on the road consistently, and she didn’t prefer it for environmental reasons but didn’t always have access to anything better. She said if you only use sawdust, you are likely to end up with a bucket of soup, especially if you aren’t able to dump it very often. (I’m interested in hearing from other readers if they have experienced using other more sustainable-yet-absorbent possibilities–I’m also going to try shredded newspapers/office paper combined with some other available materials and see what that does).
I am currently solving this absorbancy problem but collecting urine separately and using it for plants and offerings back to the land (as I described earlier in my first post on the subject). I have also seen this design: a separate urinal (for liquid gold) and toilet (for humanure) in many of the more elaborate compost toilet setups (like at Sirius Ecovillage where I did my Permaculture Design Certificate). These two human wastes have very different uses and necessary treatments.
Further, if you are changing your bucket out at least once a week, the solid droppings don’t stink once covered up at all–it’s really quite amazing. However, urine will go to ammonia the longer it sits, exposed to air, if its not properly absorbed. So I have found that using my compost toilet with the sawdust mainly for solid deposits (allowing for some liquid during making a solid deposit) doesn’t lead to any smell and the sawdust works well.
Another consideration is what happens to the toilet paper. From a report from friends, toilet paper takes a lot longer to break down than humanure and you are sometimes left with only bits of TP with otherwise well-composted material. Given this, many people don’t include theirs in the bucket. But to me, this makes more waste and helps with the absorbancy issue. Also, its possible to get recycled and undyed toilet paper, and that makes it even a little bit better. Volume here also matters: I am living alone with occasional visitors, and having a family of four would require much more buckets and volume (but also a faster turnaround time as the buckets fill up).
In the end, a number of factors will impact how you use your compost toilet. I’m in some ways making it out to be rather complicated, and it really isn’t. What it ultimately comes down to is this: have some cover material, do your business, cover it up, and go about your day!
Using the Compost Toilet
Using the toilet is really easy. You’ll need to do the following:
- Start with a layer of cover material on the very bottom of the bucket. I add about 1″ of sawdust to mine when starting a new bucket.
- Do your business.
- Add a layer of cover material, covering your deposit. Fully covering the deposit ensures that you can reduce odor. But not all the TP needs covered; people often use way too much cover material, so keep this in mind.
- When the bucket is full, transport to the compost facility (backyard, friend’s land, wherever). Make your deposit at the compost pile (see below) and then clean your bucket.
- Repeat the above steps!
Composting and Storage
Here are some good instructions for how to build a composting facility for your humanure (this comes from the Humanure Handbook folks, which I would highly recommend for more details and information).
For my friend’s facility, the process is really simple. She built two potential piles that are both enclosed (to avoid having vermin or her pet goats in the pile). One pile is “active” meaning we are adding to it, and one pile is “composting” meaning that we are waiting while it composts down. She is using a piece of wire square of fencing (rigid) to keep critters out that cover the pile, then a thick one-foot layer of hay to help keep the pile insulated during the cold winter months. She also is using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the pile.
To add deposits, we simply remove the wire square of fencing and then remove hay/insulating material from the pile, add the bucket to the pile, and cover the pile back up with hay. Then we rinse the bucket with Castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s works well) and use a small toilet brush–adding all the liquid back into the pile. In the summer months, she has a water barrel there for that purpose, but in the winter months, we bring a gallon of warm water with us from home to rinse. Then, the bucket simply goes back to your compost toilet to collect another 5 gallons of resources! The Humanure will be very occasionally turned and then added to perennial trees, bushes, and shrubs after composting down for two years.
I hope this post was inspirational and informative, and I believe it is a great way to start this new civil year. I know that 2016 was a hard year for many people, but I think its important to focus on what we are able to do, here and now, and find our way forward in harmony with the land. The problems we face ask us to creatively engage with our world, to embrace it with consideration and care, and I know that all of us, in our own ways, will continue to do that into the future.