Flushing our waste down the toilet with water seems, to most, a hygienic and easy way to wave goodbye to something nasty. Once it's gone, most people rarely give it another thought. But the amount of valuable water each family literally pours down the drain each year, not to mention the harmful effects of chemical treatments in sewage farms or the fact that our waste can make its way back into our waterways, is something I believe we should all be paying attention to. So why, when I tell people about plans to eventually have a dry toilet and turn my poo into compost to help grow veggies, do they mostly cringe in disgust?
Sure, the idea of a compost toilet in a house is quite something to get your head round and the ones I have visited are actually located outside, for which you must have adequate land. But considering the fact that it is possible for me to install a self-contained compost loo onto my narrowboat, I think it is time to start convincing the average Jo on the street that humanure should be a resource, not a waste.
During my travels I have perched my bum on a number of compost loos and far from being put off, these often plush and fragrant constructions have me undoubtedly converted.
Compost toilets in Portugal
Sophie and Andy Hill live on a smallholding nestled in the breathtaking mountains of Central Portugal. Their beautiful brick-built bathroom building, complete with solar shower and funky mosaic tiling, is more inviting than most conventional bathrooms I have visited in regular houses. Of course, the pièce de résistance is that this is most definitely a loo with a view! Volunteers are regularly invited to stay, help out with chores, learn about permaculture and hopefully leave feeling inspired and ready to spread the word, as well as the muck!
Compost toilets in Norway
Last summer I spent a week high in the mountains above Sognefjord in Norway, hidden away in an old cabin. No electricity, one cold running tap and a toilet – literally – in the forest. A makeshift shed protected modesty, but essentially this toilet was an extremely basic design of a hole in a box and the contents underneath regularly removed and placed on a humanure pile. OK so this loo experience was not particularly glamorous, not to mention it was a lot colder than the mountains of Portugal, but it did highlight to me that there really isn't much to building a compost toilet if you have the time, inclination and space.
Compost toilets in Cornwall
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Cornwall are the family-run Mill Valley Yurts. Based upon the principles of minimal environmental impact, on site you will find two composting toilets. These 4ft x 4ft wooden sheds house chambers (recycled wheelie bins) below the seats and use a 'Kernowrat separett privy 500', which separates the number 1's from the number 2's. When the wheelie bins are full the contents are transferred to large metal containers (recycled LPG tanks) and after a year or so the compost is used around Mill Valley's new tree plantations. Owner, Lisa Mudie, likes to ask guests who crinkle their nose at the idea of a compost toilet, "Is it better for your waste to be composted and returned to the ground without leaving our site, or would you rather go down to the beach and swim in it?"
Alice Griffin is a travel writer with a passion for sustainable living. When not travelling abroad you will find her floating about on her narrowboat, somewhere near London. www.alicegriffin.co.uk
For an informative and irreverent look at how we humans have 'eased' ourselves over the centuries, from earth closets and privies, to dry toilets, both manufactured and self-built. Sections on greywater recycling, composting 'humanure' and conventional treatment systems. Packed with diagrams so you can make your own compost loo see the 1970s classic, now released, The Toilet Papers.