How many of you are turning up your noses having just read the title of this post? A couple of years ago I'd have done the same, but since then I've used two fantastic composting toilets and I'm a convert. The experience was not disgusting, I did not see other peoples poo, there were no coma inducing odours and no flies issued forth from the lifted seat to attack my nether regions. It was all very civilised indeed if you don't mind and thankfully none of my preconceived fears materialised. Common sense research has added one or two simple factors into the equation to make this a perfectly pleasant experience! In fact I've shifted my opinion from 'no feckin way' to 'actually, I want one of my own'.
Excrement happens, but why contaminate 7 to 15L of water with every flush and then use huge amounts of energy and money to clean up the mess, often performed inefficiently causing ground water and soil contamination? If there was a safe healthy alternative that provided biomass for basket and fence making, fuel for your stove and fertiliser for your plants wouldn't you want to know more? Read on ...
The composting toilet is not an old fashioned hole in the ground latrine, which did result in terrifically bad smells and were not altogether pleasant to put it mildly. A composting toilet avoids the smell by ensuring the decomposition process is performed aerobically (air present for sweet microbes) rather than anaerobically (without air=stink to high heaven). Also some bulking agents are added in the form of sawdust or shredded paper which corrects the nutrient balance and again ensures conditions are ideal for aerobic as opposed to anaerobic digestion. Its not rocket science. So simple, yet very effective.
Let me describe both of the compost toilet options that I was privy to test run. The first was a commercially available toilet by Separett. On first approach it looks exactly like a conventional toilet. It's made from all the materials you would expect a toilet to be made of which does tend to put one at ease. Lifting the lid things initially look complicated ... where do I wee, do I have to get a poo onto that ledge, what if I do it in the wrong place ... a quick tutorial from the proud owner and I soldiered on in the name of sustainable living. A flap covers the contents and only opens when weight is placed on the toilet seat, along with a fan, so theres no 'view' or odour to contend with. This toilet cost €1000 and the owners have been very happy with its performance since they installed it two years ago. 'We didn't want all the bother that goes with installing a septic tank, along with the usual capers of regularly unblocking drains. Septic tanks just don't seem to work in Leitrim. Our toilet needs emptying once a month, then the composted contents are used as fertiliser around the trees and fruit garden'.
The other compost toilet I used was totally home made. On approach it looked quite appealing as it was all made with wood and decorated nicely with eco paint. It felt very 'clean'. There was a lovely smell of pine, not a toilet cleaner overpowering synthetic pine smell, but a natural one. Opening the lid met with no nasty surprises, and revealed the source of the lovely odour as each visitor scatters a small scoop of sawdust to cover any solids. This immediately neutralises any potential odours. The lidded pot needs emptying a couple of times a week. Total Cost €30. When I asked the owner why he chose to use a composting toilet he said 'Speed and simplicity, and wanting to save those good nutrients - plus not wanting to pollute the ground by using a 'normal' system.' It's more eco-friendly than todays septic/sewage treatments? 'No question about it.'
For those sunny days when we are outdoors a lot, and if your land has plenty of privacy then you might also consider a garden based treebog. This design does not require emptying so the compost is not harvested for use, well at least not directly. Again aeration is the key factor to excluding odour. The other ingredient is the use of nutrient rich plant species to harness the compost. The toilet is placed over a one metre squared space, walled with double chicken wire which is then filled with hay. This provides a visual barrier to the contents but allows aeration. Willow is planted closely around the toilet boundary and then a band of deep rooting comfrey. The nutrient hungry willow can be harvested yearly to provide poles for gardening and basket making, or harvested every few years instead when large enough to burn on in a stove. The comfrey leaves can be harvested annually to make liquid fertiliser for your vegetable garden.
Planning legislation in Ireland in not yet proactive in this area yet. However I did find the planning departments of other countries who provide publications on how to build one or where to buy one, and plenty of information on the web from various users.
The Humanure Handbook is the place to start if you are interested. Try your local library, request it on Freecycle, buy it from your local bookshop or lastly, order it from our Sallygardens Bookshop by Amazon.
Do you think you could use one?