What goes around comes around or the importance of composting toilets

February 22, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

It’s not difficult to get my dad talking about the past and the first story he remembered about times before flush toilets was a tale about his brother and his friend who snuck round the back of the earth closets in their Lake District village. Via the back entrance they took delight in brandishing stinging nettles at the backside of some local character named Mad Jack!

Image RemovedThe point is that earth closets only go back a generation. A useful question might be what was wrong with them that we gave it all up for water based sewerage systems?  Memories of history lessons refer to the emptying of the night soil and the epidemic of infectious disease based on unsanitary conditions . The public health issue was clearly a matter of being organised about managing the waste.

Always seen as a job for the ‘lower’ people, my dad recalls the “Thunderbox”, the bucket in the joiner’s workshop where he served a long apprenticeship. The job of emptying it fell to the apprentices. Again I remember my school history lessons or maybe it was RE, in India the job of managing the public toilet pits was the job of the lowest caste the  “Untouchable or Dalit” groups.

 On being invited to blog about community structures it seems the toilet, whilst not being the most sociable of places, is as essential as a building or space gets. Here are a few jottings on my own transitioning toilet knowledge! I’m no expert on this but this is my understanding and experience so far.

Toilet Types

The Tree Bog: The one that needs the least management

Image RemovedPlant willow and other nutrient hungry stuff to take up your compost around your loo? What could be simpler? Often simple wooden structures, sometimes on stilts over a straw bale in a pit perhaps.

Click here for how to build your own.

The wheelie bin toilet: A number of variations

Monkton Wyld Court, a centre for sustainable education in Dorset, has set up an aerobic system for composting human waste that is carefully managed.

The  beautiful wooden structure made from locally sourced timber stands over two wheelie bins used in succession. The bins are emptied into managed heaps close by and kept and monitored for several years before being used as compost.

Consideration of your user can determine your choice of loo. The transition from indoor WC to outdoor compost loo is made as easy as possible as the designer and builder of this loo has made it comfortable and just like you would get at home for the many folk who come here for events and courses.

Image RemovedKaruna, a permaculture  project in Shropshire, however offers a different experience. Advocating the squat toilet as a much healthier way to eliminate your waste, they’ve designed and set up a simple, effective and dare I say it elegant system which also makes excellent compost, also managed in wheelie bins. This is a much more outdoor experience and reminds me of that liberating thing of being in the hills and peeing with the sheep!

Writing from Lancaster the wonderful community allotment toilets at Ambleside Road allotments have to get a mention.

Organised by LESS this loo got in the top five picks for the 2011 Permaculture Magazine award for best loo.  A truly great accolade!!

The dual pit system

Many loos are built over two pits and the seat and box is designed so that it can be moved from one side to the other, once the first is full. Most systems are anaerobic or cold systems and need to break down and compost over time for orchards etcetera.  A soak such as sawdust is usually provided.  Urine separation systems can be set up and often a urinal can be simply a bale of straw. My understanding is that aerobic systems that break down the waste at high temperatures over periods of time and carefully monitored can be used on food crops. The best source of info on all this seems to be The Humanure Handbook. A free pdf download of this entire book is available online.

Image RemovedThe building bit: wood working skills

There are lovely examples of fine woodwork and creative responses to the special everyday ritual of peeing and pooing. Building a small structure such as a loo or shower is a great opportunity to learn and practice woodworking skills. There are great examples of traditional timber framing and green word work as well as more contemporary methods. I love going to loos that are not only neat round the edges and comfortable but also a work of craft. 

Felin Uchaf on the Llynn Peninsula also offers courses and volunteer opportunities to build with others. Try the little Youtube clip below for Felin Uchaf’s  heritage building skills, showing examples of stone stem wall, straw bale and cob building for a toilet cubicle housing a very posh loo.


Decorating from salvage

In contrast to all that natural building stuff here are some examples of glam compost loos from entirely recycled materials at Rainbow Futures, a wonderful festival venue in the Forest of Dean.

Take the shell of dreadful chemical loo, place it over a large, deep hole, find a few inspired arty types, offer them no end of recycled gubbins, discuss your themes as retro and kitsch as you can get and away you go!

TwinningImage Removed

Get global and think aid, a small charitiable donation can mean that you’re toilet twinned with another in a poor country means a community can get more  sanitary conditions.

And finally : A children’s book!

Look out for Mandy Burton’s new book “The Loveliest Loo… the story of a compost toilet” published by Lowimpact.org (LILI)

What goes round comes around. Whilst we are, in a way, moving ‘back’ to managing our waste using waterless systems hopefully we’re moving onward with a bit more sense. That the management of it all is not someone else’s job.  It’s our very own waste and our very own responsibility. Managed properly our waste composts into an invaluable resource..

Let’s hope that the small boys with stinging nettles have gone away and that the deposits of the Mad Jack’s of this world and all the rest of us are treated with the true respect they deserve! 

Gwen Sanderson is a former teacher of children with special needs who is currently on a year’s WWOOFing as preparation for becoming part of a sustainable community in Wales.  She and her partner Rob Oakey have a particular interest in greenwood building techniques- hence her special interest in the nature and construction of the compost toilet.  Anyone wishing to follow their progress can visit their blog:


Pictures: various composting toilets- all by Rob Oakey. Low Impact Living symbol

Tags: compost toilets