Imagine the world before the invention of the toilet. While this may seem long ago, the truth is that humans have existed on Earth for a longer period of time without toilets than with them. As one may imagine, all matter that came from the Earth as food, went directly back to the Earth in a different form. Nonetheless, the environment didn’t suffer but naturally reincorporated all of the matter into nature in a beneficial way. This is where the modern concept of the composting toilet comes from.
Today, toilets are the largest wasters of water in the average North American household. The standard toilet will flush 1.8 gallons of clean, drinking-grade water down the drain, though some older toilets are worse, using up to 7 gallons per flush. The vital importance of clean water should go without saying, and losing such large amounts of this precious resource to toilet flushes heavily contributes to water scarcity issues. To reduce wasting water in the home, retire the modern toilet and implement a composting one.
There are many components to composting toilets, but the basics are simple. One needs a receptacle for the human wastes, organic material such as soil, peat moss and sawdust, and a seat and lid for the receptacle. Keep in mind that in many cases people separate liquid from solid waste, which requires 2 receptacles rather than 1.
Combining these necessities into a toilet can come in many forms, so while converting to a composting toilet is environmentally friendly, it is also an opportunity for creativity when it comes to design. Some modern composting toilets available for purchase are specially designed for cleanliness and efficiency, while in the most primitive form, a composting toilet is equivalent to a bucket and some sawdust. Either method is functional, just with different requirements for mixing and disposal. With some composting toilets, you must mix the contents of the bucket yourself regularly, but others are machine operated and will do that for you.
The naturally occurring bacteria inside the human waste and the organic soil components will interact, breaking down into highly nutritious and clean soil. For this to occur, a high temperature must be reached, which can be done in many ways.
Sometimes, the environment of and chemical reactions inside the toilet will naturally reach a high enough temperature to decompose the material and kill pathogens. In other cases, a fancier compostable toilet will have a heater. Methods like Japanese Bokashi will reach the temperature by naturally occurring fermentation of certain mixtures of organic materials. Any of these methods is safe and hygienic to use, and virtually odor free.
One of the main concerns about compostable toilets is the misconception that they will smell bad, but in reality, they just smell like garden soil. By mixing the human waste with the organic materials, the odor is masked and eventually reduced to nothing. This also prevents insects such as flies from flocking to the toilet. In the end, a composting toilet is just as, or even more hygienic, than a regular toilet.
Composting toilets can also handle menstrual fluid and toilet paper, just make sure to use 1- or 2-ply!
After using the compostable toilet for a few days, it may be time to dump the contents. People who use a composting toilet as their primary toilet need to dump contents 2-3 times per week. For someone on the road, the contents can be dumped somewhere in nature that’s far away from a water source. Although some people suggest dumping it into bodies of water, this is not a sustainable practice because it introduces potentially harmful substances into a drinking water source. For example, even though urine is normally safe to dump, it may contain metals or antibiotics if the person it came from uses medication.
Alternatively, if you live on a farm or have a garden, save your compost and use it as fertilizer! Sometimes you will want to let the contents decompose for a long time before using it on food crops, in which case the bucket can stay in the yard until it’s ready. For more information on this, consult the free Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, the leading guide for homemade composting toilets.
Be it 10,000 years ago or today, humans continue to process their environment in the same way. Applying what nature has provided us with in a beneficial manner while saving water and money is the purpose and beauty of the composting toilet.