The time has come at TransitionCulture to address one of the less palatable but, I think, more fascinating aspects of this whole energy descent business. What happens when it becomes too costly, unfeasible or, due to sudden disruptions to our energy supplies, impossible, to run our mains sewage system? When the whole system stops working and we still need to go, where will we, as it were, go? As someone who until a few months ago had spent 6 years of my life using a compost toilet, I thought I might share my experience of a flush-free life.
Humanity can fly to the moon, build the Channel Tunnel and so on, but we still defecate in water and then try and work out what to do with it. We have not advanced at all since the days of Crapper. Every time we pull the flush, anything between 4 and 7 litres of clean drinking water, already purified at great energy expense and chemical input, is mixed with our bodily wastes. We take that clean water and turn it into dangerous pathogenic water, which then requires extensive treatment to render it safe. Clearly the most sensible approach to this question is not to mix the two together at all in the first place. Indeed, when it becomes energetically impossible to do so, we will not have the choice. Then what?
Pooing behind the hedge is OK if one or two people do it, but not if the whole town follow suit. Etched indelibly into my memory is a time when I was 22, travelling on a bus across China, on the China/Tibet border. We had been rattling along through the desert for hours, when we finally arrived in the town. Everyone got off, and about half the people headed off down the street. I had made sure when I first go to China to learn the word for ‘toilet’, which is something like (if my memory serves me correctly) “sheshwor”. I asked the people around me in an inquisitive tone “sheshwor?”, and they pointed in the direction that half the people had already headed in. Off I went, then around the corner, to what was in effect an open square in the town, with houses around, and just dry dust on the ground. There were half the passengers, squatted hither and thither doing their thing. Possibly it can be got away with in high altitude deserts, but in Totnes it isn’t really an option.
Over the years I have become a bit of a compost toilet nerd. My slides I use for teaching permaculture courses contain photos of various peoples’ toilets, from the hi-tech to the uber-rustic. When I built my first house, we needed a loo. To put in a flush loo (all we had ever known up to that point) complete with header tank, pipes, septic tank and reed bed, would have cost thousands. We looked at various models of compost loos, and then stumbled across Joe Jenkins’ ‘The Humanure Handbook’. It was a eureka moment in a life of many eureka moments.
I realised that I could keep the poo and the water apart, and it would actually be a benefit, for everyone concerned. I could make great compost, grow better plants, build soil, feed worms and save money. That had to be a winning combination. Our toilet cost €20 to build (see left), including the bucket. A big sack of the sawdust produced by planking the timber that clad our house and we were away. The process is very simple, you use it like a normal loo, every time you use it you put a handful of dry sawdust in, when it gets nearly full you take it out to a compost head outdoors, a minimum of 4ft cubed in size.
You take care to build your compost heap in layers of 6″, alternating carbon rich material like shredded paper, dry bracken, straw, with high nitrogen material like lawn mowings, weeds, green stuff in general (see right, that’s my heap…). Every time you empty your bucket you make sure you cover it. When the heap is full you leave it 6-8 months and there you go. I used to then turn it and let it compost another 6 months, but I think that was me being a bit cowardly, I’m sure it was actually ready by then, but I was playing safe. Best compost I ever made. Moist, sweet smelling, crumbly, beautiful. I have passed a bag of it round students on courses I have done and they have been amazed. It went onto the garden and grew great food.
I always meant to get it tested to see how it was, but never found anyone who could do it. Everyone I rang to ask I could hear suppressed sniggers at the end of the line. So I can’t tell you that the e-coli count was X and the pathogen count Y. I can tell you my family and I used it for 6 years, and the resultant compost went on our vegetable garden, and none of us ever had worms, dissentry, gastroenteritis, or any other of the things some people worry about. All the research I did on the subject left me feeling very confident that this process would render it safe. It struck me as the Rolls Royce of composting loos, it was so simple; nothing could go wrong, it worked as well in a power cut as when the power was on, I understood how it worked, and I made great compost. I couldn’t ask for more.
At one point we were in the process of applying for planning to retain the house as it was built without planning. We got the permission but only for 3 months. I rang the Council to find out what the 3 month thing was all about and they said it was because the engineer (despite not coming to see it) had deemed out toilet system “unsanitary and unhygenic”. I made an appointment and went to see the Engineer. I took him a copy of Jenkins’ book, and brought in a sample of my compost. I asked him why he felt I shouldn’t be allowed to use my humanure loo system. “On environmental grounds”, he says. “Well, funnily enough”, I replied, “that’s why I use it”. I asked him what would give him confidence to allow me to carry on using my bucket. He said either I would need an Irish Agrement Board certificate for it as a recognised sewage treatment system (which I later found out costs about €70,000) or find existing planning precedents. It turned out that actually the planning permission I had been given for the house I was building at the time specified humanure toilets, so his department had already approved it! He said he would need to come out and inspect it, which he did, and he went away very impressed. “I can see that the key to this system is good management, and this is a well managed system” he said. So there is hope for common sense in public office, even if the beginnings are not auspicious.
And in case you are wondering, my bathroom smelt fine (with one caveat which I’ll come to in a minute), there were no flies, and it was inside the house. The caveat was to do with the sawdust. It you have poor sawdust, it will smell a bit (but not as much as you would think). Sawdust which is, oddly, either very dry or very wet, will result in a smellier loo. The best sawdust we ever used was from the sawmill, from fresh logs (ie. not kiln dried), so it was slightly moist and delighfully fragrant. Every time you out a handful of sawdust in, the bathroom smelt great. Good sawdust is the key.
The bible for humanurists is ‘The Humanure Handbook’. It is funny, enlightening, and like all good common sense, completely obvious, and makes you feel that the flush toilet is one of the most absurd things ever invented. Here is how to make one, taken from the book. Do get yourself a copy. Even if you presently live in a house with a flush loo, you never know when you might need to know the skills this book contains… when you gotta go you gotta go. I now live (for now) in a house with a flush, but the thought of no longer being able to use my loo is no longer a cause of concern, infact I would quite look forward to it, as I rather miss the alchemical process of turning shit to soil, a far more worthwhile process that turning metal to gold in my opinion.
Great article! So how does urine fit in the picture? I’ve heard of solar distillation units that will purify human urine to water, but was wondering about how a composting toilet deals with liquid human waste. After all, seldom, do I go #2 without some #1!
That’s fantastic. What a great idea and what a nice outcome. I look forward to making one of these toilets someday.
To reply to Jim’s urine question (how long till we hear Oprah say that?!). According to the humanure ‘philosophy’, urine is an essential ingredient in the compost process. It is estimated that human urine contains nitrogen roughly equivalent to the amount used in agriculture to grow our food. The humanure approach says put it in the heap with everything else, it is the vital ingredient to the hot compost needed to render human manure safe, it being a great ‘activator’.
There is another school of thought,set out in Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plantsby Carol Steinfeld and Malcolm Wells, which argues that urine is such wonderful stuff on its own that you should separate it and use it on plants. This then would mean that you can only cold compost the poo, which means it will not be safe on food plants.
So its a choice really, I guess there’s no reason why you couldn’t do both really. You keep a bit of pee on one side (stop me if I’m getting too graphic here…) by peeing into a plastic bottle or somesuch which you can mix 1-10 with water when you are watering your plants, and the rest of your doings go into the compost heap. That’s what I did, mostly humanure, but a bit of extra when required.
Whatever suits, both are an infinite improvement on the flush…
I too was inspired by Jenkin’s book and operated his method right here in English suburbia with a family of four! Not wanting to permanently replace our flush loo for this experiment, I built a compost toilet into a large cupboard in a bedroom. Not ideal, by any means, but we had no odour problems at all (… and this is not something I would have believed without first hand evidence!)
We found the most effective and convenient cover material for the loo to be crumbled leaf mould (aged 2-3 years), but there are loads of different possibilities.
I recommend both Jenkin’s book and the message board on his website. They contain the informative (and often hilarious) accounts of a growing band of humanure composting enthusiasts worldwide who offer advice on how best to make humanure in all kinds of situations (rural, suburban and even urban) and how they have overcome with varying degrees of success our extreme cultural prejudice in this area.
The bottom line… (..sorry!)…it’s the simplest and cheapest method for composting human waste, and if you manage the system properly it won’t smell … and, of course, you get fantastic compost!
Yes I am also a long-standing (squatting?) humanure practitioner and I truly believ it is one of the most satisfying and easy things you will learn in Permaculture- it is actually much easier to get successful compost with this method than ordinary garden compost. The “bucket- and- chuck-it” method is simplicity itself and I always feel great on emptying the bucket and feeling I was doing my bit to build up soil. I produced approx. 80 litres of top notch compost from my poo system last year, although the humanure itself from an adult in one year will compost down to only about 1 cubic foot. I add in all my kitchen scraps, have a pile of rotting straw by the barrel to cover the stuff from the bucket with, and put in some weeds also through the year. I use large plastic barrels with screw-top lids that we get for 5 euros each from a local olive trader and I drill holes all the way around the top and bottom for ventilation.
Another aspect of this whole topic is the idea that Earnet Becker wrote about in the 60s or 70s in his book “The Denial of Death” in which he argued that the psychology behind rampant consumerism and industrial growth is the fear and denial of our own bodily decay and the waste our bodies produce. We would rather flush it away and forget about it and keep watching the TV with its promise of eternal youth and beauty and buy the next flashy shiny chrome thing that makes us feel we can live forever.
Making Humanure allows us to feel once again part of the natural cycle and can help bring peace and harmony to the soul.
This is brilliant and makes so much sense. Rob, you say that urine contains nitrogen equivalent to the amount used in agriculture to grow food. In Ireland there is currently a debate raging in the agriculture sector about the (over)use of nitrates on the land. This is such an obvious solution but who in the Department of Agriculture or the Irish Farmers’ Association would be radical enough to support it. I can just see the reaction to such a suggestion and its dismissal as lunacy. Yet in a few years’ time when nitrates and artificial fertilisers, so dependent on oil for production, transport etc., become scarce, it may be seen as the sensible option.
Yes, I can see the headlines in the Irish Times about the Government ‘taking the piss’…
We’ve been doing the “bucket thing” here for a few years…everyone loves it, even the neighbor kids. My conversations with the neighbor kids’ parents are always interesting.