I have wooed her; I have courted her. I have plied her with visions of roses and lilies. And this weekend Amanda murmured those words I’ve longed to hear: “You know, I’m kind of coming around to the idea of a composting toilet.”
The effort to convince Amanda to accept and use a composting toilet suffered a grave setback a couple of years ago when we experienced a primitive outhouse at the farm of a friend. Flies swarmed around it, it stank, and it was uncomfortable to use. It seemed unsatisfactory to a southern woman and downright repugnant for a southern woman with the gift of hospitality to offer to her guests.
We’ve since learned that what we experienced was neither necessary or appropriate and that there are much smarter, easier ways to compost humanure. But the sensory assault of that outhouse has corrupted Amanda’s perception of the whole idea of a composting toilet.
Since then I have dropped hints and made explanations of what a composting toilet could mean, even promising more robust roses and day lilies nourished by the humanly processed remains of our squash and tomatoes. I seemed to be on my own, however. What made the difference was Port-O-Let. Thank you, Port-O-Let! Some dear friends had port-o-lets brought in to accommodate a crowd they were entertaining outside, and using that version of an outhouse convinced Amanda she didn’t need the chemical solution. So now I am authorized to plan for a composting toilet outside, to supplement the thoroughly functional, more or less conventional dual-flush toilet we will have inside the barn.
I think she’ll be glad she gave it the green light. When you think about it, the practice we humans (and we humans alone) have of intentionally defecating in our drinking water is nothing short of bizarre. What seems “civilized” to most of us modern Americans is actually silly in its wastefulness. And in an age to come when both the minerals in human feces and fresh water will be increasingly precious and harder to find, we’ll probably remember with incredulity our habit of washing precious waste away with precious water, rendering both useless in the process.
And there is a certain inescapable elegance to any approach that keeps one’s human waste close at hand for use as fertilizer. When you read about the extraordinary lengths one would have to go to to recycle human waste on an industrial scale, our little “keep it and use it here” method seems startlingly (but quietly) appropriate.
The approach we’re considering most seriously is what the Humanure Handbook calls a “cartage” or “bucket” toilet. It’s the simplest of designs, and seems easier to manage than most of the (infinitely more complex and expensive) alternatives. We also know that our friends Dave Berry and Sean Andrews have owned and used this kind of toilet for several years and are quite satisfied with it.
The heart of the system (if you can call such a simple arrangement a “system”) is a five gallon bucket with a lid that closes tightly. The suggestion from the Humanure Handbook is that we start with 4-5 identical buckets with identical lids, so we can put the lid on a bucket and put it aside rather than having to run to the compost pile every time. And they need to be identical so they will all fit snugly in the enclosure we build to fit.
The enclosure need not be airtight, because – we are told – the cover material we place in the bucket after each use will keep it from smelling or attracting flies or vermin. So we will build a simple wooden enclosure for the bucket with a hinged top, and mount a toilet seat on the top. Then when the bucket is beginning to fill up, we can open the top, remove the bucket, put the lid on it, and put a clean bucket in its place.
The cover material can be almost anything organic that will absorb moisture. The first choice is rotting sawdust from a lumber mill. We don’t have one of those nearby, but I do have clients who send me their signed documents. I scan them for filing and then shred them, and we understand the shredded paper makes excellent cover material. There’s probably a sermon in there somewhere about using the documentation of broken families to nourish beauty and new life. I shall leave it to you to preach it.
When it’s time to dump the buckets, we’ll rake some of the material off the top center of the compost pile (looking for the warmest spot) and dump the bucket there. We will wash out the buckets with water, soap, and a long-handle brush set aside for the purpose. Then we will pour the rinse water in the pile too. This last part is crucial. The Achilles heel of bucket composting is the risk that rinse water will contaminate the environment by being scattered about in a haphazard manner. We will be careful to pour the rinse water only into the compost pile. When we’ve finished dumping for that day, we’ll cover up the fresh deposit with more organic material (leaves, grass clippings, or just dirt) and leave it to compost. This operation seems a little messy, so that’s another reason why I like the idea of working with two or three full buckets at a time.
There’s really no health related reason not to use fully composted humanure on food crops. We want to be able to offer our vegetables to friends and family without encountering any squeamishness, however, so our human compost will be confined to the ornamentals like those in Amanda’s full sun flower bed.