Adventures in Learning How to Use a Compost Toilet

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Compost toilets bring you a little closer to the most basic function of living.

The ad showed all the magic ingredients in a rental home: hardwood floors, skylights, woodstove, quiet setting in the woods, pets OK … perfect for the right person.

“I am that person,” I thunder to the bulletin board. “It’s me, it’s me.”

The housing market around Santa Cruz, California, works along the predictable lines of supply and demand: There is virtually no supply, and hundreds of people converge on anything suggesting shelter and demand to move in.

This is California, mind you, where public outbursts are more civic duty than an intrusion of any sort, so my shouting at the billboard draws only a few encouraging nods, a raised fist or two, and then a personal moment with the traveling minstrel beside me. “Hey man,” he tells me, patting my shoulder, “I tried telling ’em, but they just wouldn’t listen.”

I call the number and the interview goes pretty well.

“Nope, woodstoves aren’t a problem. We had one growing up and I prefer wood heat anyhow.”

Power outages are common during the winter, I am warned, and the road washes out with heavy rain.

“Hey, candlelight and isolation are just what I’m looking for.”

“One main thing. The cabin has a compost toilet.”

“A compost toilet?”

“A compost toilet.”

“… I’ve always wanted a compost toilet.”

I beat my way through the angry hordes and arrive at my new haven in the redwoods. Not only were there skylights, hardwood floors and the intoxicating aroma of old wood, but an outdoor bathtub and goldfish pond and the cutest little mermaid statue you’ve ever seen.

And, of course, the compost toilet. It actually resembles a throne. No kidding. It sits up a foot or so higher than your normal privy because of a lower storage area and the main holding drum in the center. It takes some getting used to — ruling your kingdom from high altitude — but there is a small step to rest your feet on and after a while it all becomes quite natural.

The composting process works something like this:

You read the manual several times and carefully note every piece of advice for starting things up. This toilet was new, thankfully, so I didn’t have to deal with somebody else’s … um, compost.

First you spray down all inside surfaces with an activator fluid, then you dump in half a sack of sphagnum peat moss, two quarts of warm water and a foil package of microbe mix to kick-start the process.

That done, you’re still not too sure about going to the bathroom in your new house without being able to flush it away, so you take a whiz outside and postpone any other activities until you can make it down to a public facility.

It’s only after all the waitresses in town know you as “that bathroom guy” that you figure it’s time you and your toilet got to know one another.

Your compost is a living thing. Remember that. You can throw in kitchen scraps if you want to — in fact, one piece of bread per week is recommended as a yeast offering to the compost gods in order to keep things active — but keep in mind that anything designed to kill germs elsewhere in the house will also do it here. In which case, you have to clean it out and start over. Put the cleaner down. Use the activator fluid instead.

Each time the toilet is used, you throw in a cup of sphagnum peat moss, which gives your compost “body” and keeps things from settling or suffocating. Below the seat and encased in the outer shell is a round drum you rotate every three to four days by turning the handle clockwise. You don’t want to spin the drum too often because the bacteria need time to work, but not enough rotation will allow the contents to settle and slow down. This is one of those judgement things based on how often the toilet is used.

Once the drum becomes two-thirds full and you’re ready to process the first compost, the handle is turned counterclockwise to release a trapdoor that spills a portion of the contents down to a finishing drawer on the bottom. This compartment looks like any drawer you might put your socks in, excepts that it’s made of fiberglass and doesn’t exactly contain your socks. What it does contain looks rather different than you might expect; a fan and heating element have kept things active inside the main chamber and the compost and peat moss mixture have broken down the original contents to an innocent-looking sawdust material. It’s really quite a surprise the first time around how dry and … well, harmless the finished product looks.

I had no garden at the time so decided to bless the poison oak out back with the first batch. The leaves took on a richer, deeper color in no time at all. You could get a rash just standing downwind.

Everything was going great until I ran out of peat moss. I went for reinforcements to the local nursery, where I discovered all the peat moss bags were wet from being in the rain. The instructions do suggest an occasional dose of warm water to stimulate the compost, so I didn’t think this would be a problem.

Around this time a friend happened to be staying at the house, and so I had my first experience with introducing the toilet. We covered the basics: 1) nothing more than toilet tissue goes into the toilet, 2) throw in a cup of peat moss when you’re done and 3) everything else works the same.

This particular guest had no problem, but others would remark how neat and interesting it was, graciously refuse any offers of food or drink and spend the rest of the visit firmly crossing their legs.

There was no drama and no tears when the compost died, just flies. “A healthy compost will not attract flies,” read the manual. This was not a healthy compost.

Either the wet peat moss had smothered everything or it was an outside job. My friend, who’d cleaned the house while I was at work, had some hard questions to answer:

“Are you sure you didn’t use any cleaner on the toilet?”

“No … no, I might have dusted if off but I … I don’t think I used any cleaner.”

“You don’t think? I’ve got a dying toilet on my hands and you don’t think you had anything to do with it? I wouldn’t be leaving town if I were you.”

Working off the theory that wet peat moss had strangled the compost, I set in motion a desperate rescue mission: sawdust shavings were mixed with the rain-soaked peat moss and placed in front of the fire to speed up drying time. I ran down to the store for popcorn — another owner’s manual recommendation — and dumped in several bowls to aid fluffing.

While I was delighted with the first seveal batches of compost and with how easy the process was, the task of restarting the whole thing and wiping down the main cylinder was not particularly high on my wish list of things to do. I popped more popcorn and considered dumping in a bowl or two of chicken soup, just for good measure.

The Santa Cruz mountains received a steady pounding that winter. The San Lorenzo River ran well over its banks and electricity was off more than it was on. No power, no compost fan. No fan, no vent. Not a good situation when your compost is suffering.

I nursed, I pampered. Home from work, I would fling coat aside and kneel beside my toilet … “How are you today, any better?” I found myself saying, while swatting flies and holding my nose. “Kow bar you puhday, enny bebber?” This wasn’t a case of dementia or some twisted mothering instrinct; I just didn’t want to clean the damn thing out.

In the end the funeral was a somber affair. Huddled against the rain, I dashed from the house to glance for prying neighbors. No sign. Back inside to the toilet and the waiting tray, then off to the prepared hole in the ground. I covered the spot, then marked it with crossed sticks. I don’t know why, it definitely ain’t treasure under there.

Slowly, surely, things recovered. The buried compost eased the volume in the main chamber, allowing for better air circulation and a better chance of recovery by the rest of the compost. The power came on. Heater and fan kicked in. The sawdust and peat moss combination seemed to work, and I threw in more bread and popcorn just to be sure. I spent more time cooking for the toilet than I did for myself.

Why all the hassle? Why the frustration, the odor, the kneeling beside chambers and adding water and turning handles and spraying mysterious activator fluid?

To deal with it.

We talk about it. We joke about it. We make naughty words out of it and say people are full of it. But we don’t really deal with it.

A backed-up toilet is not something to be discussed; you plunge the plunger and mutter curses or prayers until the waters recede. It’s the most basic funcltion of living — show me one more basic — and yet we blush at the very notion of cycling our waste.

It’s easy to forget that flushing the handle does not make things disappear.

What a compost toilet does do is allow you to deal with it yourself — right there, with the fan and the bread and, yes, even the possibility that things might not work all the time. Though, may I remind you that pipes do back up, septic lines can break and toilets will overflow.

Except for the one incident, my compost toilet worked perfectly and I would have no hesitation installing a similar arrangement in future homes. I would, however, like to see an alternative to electrical dependency before jumping into another composting toilet situation. It represents something of an oxymoron to be tied to the grid while rejecting it.

A compost toilet may not be for everyone, but where there’s a need …