Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Friday, March 13, 2015

Composting Toilet - I Know, But You Have To...

I've used one for so long now that I dislike using the "standard" water- and fertility-wasting version that Americans everywhere use.  But it wasn't that long ago that I too found the idea, well, dirty.  Bring up the subject among the uninitiated and before the dialogue goes very far at all you'd better be prepared to field wrinkled faces, upturned noses, and 5 year old arguments, like,


Yep, that's the standard logic.  You do what??  Compost our wastes, yes, you heard me.  And not just kitchen scraps, leaves, and livestock poo, either.  Our own human wastes.  Number 1 and number 2.

"You mean, kind of like a kitty litter box?"

Yeah, sort of, except that we don't scratch around in it once it's been used, it gets dumped the second  it's full, and it doesn't stink to high heavens.  Doesn't stink at all actually.  And it's much cuter.

And here's the thing.  It's dang near impossible for me to come up with one single easier change you could make in your life that would have a more positive impact on the planet's health (or the persistence of humanity).

Think about it.  Fresh water is both a finite commodity on this planet - the only planet we'll ever live on, by the way - and the single most important resource in our lives, excepting perhaps oxygen.  And how do we treat it with standard flush toilets?  Like shit.  Literally.  It's like pulling down your pants and taking a dump on your mother.  We take a gallon and a half of this most precious substance - drinking quality water - and flush it down the toilet every time we wish to rid our homes of a pint of piss.  Piss that, I might add, is loaded with nitrogen, phosphorus, and trace minerals.  Dilute it, at least 10:1,  and you have an excellent liquid fertilizer (that also repels deer).

Ever heard of peak phosphorus?  If not, it's time you did.  See, industrial agriculture relies heavily on rock phosphate to fertilize our major food crops, and when you do anything on the scale that industrial agriculture does things, you need a pretty large amount of pretty high quality material to fit your production scheme.  And, as with all finite resources on finite planets, both the quantity and, more importantly, the quality decline with use over time.  Rock phosphate supplies have already peaked and are in decline.  There is no debate raging over the subject.  High quality rock phosphate supplies are on their way out for good.  And get this: we also make herbicides out of the stuff!  That's right, we take a major nutrient, vital for plant growth, whose supplies are in terminal decline, and warp and twist it into chemicals that KILL plants!  Oh, sweet irony...

But wait, there's an upside, too.  Peak phosphorus and declining rock phosphate quantity and quality only matter if you get your food from the industrial food supply that relies on it!  It isn't a problem for all of us who grow our food organically, at home, and recycle all of our bodily wastes back into the soil.  So you're all set, right?  I thought so.  There are a dozen ways to collect phosphorus from your surroundings, every day, and composting toilets are right up there at the top of the list.  Easy peasy.

So now that you've started using a composting toilet, you're NOT wasting tens of thousands of gallons of drinking quality water every year, water that won't find its way back into your aquifer within your or your grandchildren's lifetime, nor are you flushing away vital nutrients, nutrients that are in increasingly short supply globally every year, in such a cavalier way, as if the nutrient fairy will just show up with a fresh supply when you run low.

And no, there is no danger from pathogens.  Gut microbes like E. coli live in very specialized, temperature controlled environments, like, well, your gut, and compost piles are a very hostile place for them.  They don't stand a chance in there.  That objection you're waving your hand about right now is simply part of your cultural programming (the 5 year old part).  Cultural programming that, I might add, is currently destroying humankind's ability to continue enjoying this fine little planet we call home.  But don't worry about it too much, I'm sure another planet will show up when we need one.  Or the Rapture.  Or the Singularity.  Or the...

Welcome to the composting toilet club...one day...when you grow up.

Tripp out.


  1. Partial member of the club right now. We have simple 5-gallon buckets out behind the pumphouse that we urinate into. Explaining to guests and the in-laws makes for an interresting time, sometimes ... and not always for the reason you'd think. Yesterday, I started explaining to my mother-in-law about the compost, and the buckets ("I was told there were buckets, but not what they are for!"), and the carbon to nitrogen ratio and how urea works great in speeding up the compost process ... MiL's comment was, "Next time, I will be sure to contribute my share!" I have been contemplating a composting toilet post for my little blog since yesterday afternoon.

    A related note: This year we are using the compost from the pile we spent two years making, and both transplants and seed starts are looking impressive.

  2. There is one point you missed, Tripp. I'll bet a lot of people will eventually join the composting toilet club on the day they flush the handle and nothing happens. That day is a lot closer than people think. People in Sao Paulo are already experience that certain hours of the day, and NASA just reported that California only has a year of water left. Even regions that have plenty of water have aging infrastructure that one day may be too expensive to repair. And come to think of it, I hate to think of what sea level rise may do to sewage treatment plants in coastal towns.

  3. We have been doing this for just over a year and when I am forced to use a 'regular' toilet I feel ashamed of myself.
    It was interesting to see how the attitude changed (as John notes above) in Christchurch after the earthquakes here in New Zealand... people were forced to try other arrangements. Initially this was mostly just diggin a hole out the back but has evolved into more productive solutions as the situation protracted.

  4. Dfr, good for you! And extremely low tech, too, I love it. I had an off-grid friend somewhat sheepishly ask me the other day if we were still "pooping in a bucket," and had we considered any of the more expensive options. Yes and no, respectively, was my answer. I told him I would never even consider spending so much money on something that can be more appropriately done for free. Or damn near. "They have models as low as $800 now." Sheesh! $800?? Do you know what I could do with $800?! In the end, he agreed that they would probably just use the bucket system...

    Like you, we used our first "humanure" compost (after 2 years of composting) last spring, and the resulting plant vitality was very impressive. Makes sense though, right, humans eat complex diets; only makes sense that the resulting compost should be complex as well. Best.

    John, buddy, howdy! One year of water left for California?? Good grief!! That's beyond spooky. NASA's been a real fly in the ointment lately, haven't they? Considering the "end of industrial age" article they contributed recently too. I wonder just how stupid Californians are going to feel when the tap fails to deliver right after they've just turned off the lawn sprinkler and flushed the "normal" toilet?? Mind boggling...

    Blockhill, been a while, nice to hear from you. Whatever it took, I'm glad to hear that composting toilet systems have become the new norm in certain parts of the industrial world. The more of that we can learn from, the more likely Americans will be to adopt the practice. Thanks for contributing. It's damned empowering to turn a big time problem into a big time solution, with just an attitude change, isn't it? Welcome to the club! And enjoy the profits...cheers.

  5. How timely! I am starting to get involved with the Driftless Folk School, trying to plan out the physical infrastructure, since they just let year got a piece of property to anchor their programs.

    Turns out that many states ( virtually all states) have narrow, bureaucratic codes on sanitary facilities, so we are working on some way to do a sustainable bath house without breaking the law. Of course, a private residence can do whatever they want once a building occupancy permit is issued and the house has code plumbing.

    Anyone who is at least curious should really read the info at Joe Jenkins Humanure website. While he sells a book which I have, virtually everything you need to know, as well as dispelling the www factor are on his site.

    I just posted on my blog about sitting on the bucket at -14F, since I haven't set up indoor arrangements yet. http://viridviews.blogspot.com/2015/02/a-new-low.html

    Great rant by the way, one more aspect of human activity which is going to change whether we jump to it or get dragged kicking and screaming.

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