Composting Toilets: From Waste Stream to Resource River

Reader Contribution by Anneli Carter-Sundqvist
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Making our own compost is not only a way to meet our need of fertilizer, it’s also a way to redirect the garden scraps, chicken manure, leaves and grass cuttings from the waste stream to the resource river. Anything left in a state unfit for reuse – whether it’s trash in the bin or material from around the homestead – is waste and the accumulation is a dead end path. A resource is something valuable and useful and a well managed, sustainable resource works in a circular fashion and can be reused, over and over with little or no loss or additional input. Vegetable scraps that is turned to compost that is brought back to the garden to grow new vegetables is a very straight forward example of such a resource. Dead trees on the forest floor that decay and provide nutrients for new trees is another example whereas dead trees piled together and burned is turned into waste – since that’s where the path ends.

Another area where this applies around our homestead, is our use of a composting toilet. For us, the difference between what goes down a flushing toilet and what accumulates in the buckets in the outhouse is the difference between waste and resource. Every time we flush a conventional toilet we create waste and every time we add a scoop of sawdust to cover our contribution in the composting toilet we create an important source of fertilizer for flowers and trees around our farm.

There’s a fairly general misconception in our modern society that just because we can’t see something it has simply disappeared and this notion is especially typical when it comes to conventional plumbing. I’ve had more than one seemingly reasonable adult telling me about the benefits of a flushing toilet, stating that “it just disappears.” Well, I beg to differ. Nothing just disappears – not the trash taken to the dump, not the turds flushed down the drain.

Our system is based on the “Humanure Handbook” by Joseph Jenkins, who have done extensive research on composting human manure and the benefits of that. The toilet is shaped like a box with a normal toilet seat on top and a 5 gallon bucket inside. Instead of flushing we add sawdust as a cover, to prevent odor and to soak up liquid. Whenever the bucket is full, we empty it in a compost bin and cover with garden clippings, grass or seaweed. Jenkins found in his research that when added to a proper compost pile that heats up to 120 F for at least 24 h (which all proper compost piles do) and then left for a year to be further broken down by various microorganism there will be no possibly harmful pathogens, and as if it was magic, this “waste” is now an incredible resource. Mr Jenkins points out, and this is really important, that what comes from those compost piles is no longer human manure, but soil. When we open those bins it is not turds we spread around our trees but safe, good smelling and very rich compost. He also points out that if you don’t have harmful pathogens in you when using the outhouse, there won’t be any harmful pathogens in the finished product either. Hence, if it was only Dennis and I living here and adding to the buckets, I would feel perfectly fine using the compost in our vegetable gardens. Mr Jenkins, and many others, have done that for decades without any issues.

There are many varieties of composting toilets and outhouses, this one being the safest, easiest and most resourceful, since few other system allows for a reuse of the content (once again the difference between waste and a resource). Compared to a flushing toilet it’s extremely cost and energy efficient since there’s no plumbing, drain or tanks, no power is needed to pressure the water and no water is polluted that needs to be purified again, using even more chemicals. It produces only a minuscule amount of green house gases, compared to most other human waste management systems.

Our composting toilet smell of spruce sawdust and lavender soap, the air is fresh and the view is great. To use a system like ours is to show gratitude to life: we plant a tree, eat the fruit, use the outhouse and return to the soil what we took from the tree.