When you are building a homestead from scratch, there are some basic needs that need to be figured out:
- Where do we sleep while we build? (For us it was camping during the summer and now living in our cozy home while finishing the interior)
- Where do we get our drinking, bathing, and washing water? (Rainwater catchment + Berkey filter for drinking, pond for everything else, and in times of necessity, filling up barrels at friends’ houses)
- How do we stay warm? (Wood stove and a well-insulated house!)
- How do we cook? (We use a combination of a Rocket Stove, our wood stove, a propane camping stove, and our Sun Oven)
- And finally, where do we poop?
So that’s the topic I will address today – the poop scoop. Below, I will share a slightly edited version of an article that was originally published in the wonderful online homesteading magazine, From Scratch. Since this article was written in the late summer, I’ll give a short update:
- We are still using this same bucket system.
- The toilet seat is much colder.
- Sometimes poop freezes inside a bucket and it’s harder to empty into our composting pile. Luckily in our household, there is a clear division of labor around such tasks, and my very wonderful husband manages to keep the privy in great order.
So, enjoy, and I welcome your questions in the comments!
Composting Toilets on the Homestead
First published in From Scratch Magazine
It’s a beautiful morning here on my homestead, and I head outside to visit the privy. Lifting the lid on a five-gallon bucket, I place a toilet seat upon it and make a deposit in our “humanure” system. I toss toilet paper and a handful of sawdust into the bucket, close the lid, and return to the kitchen to wash up. In a few days, the contents of the bucket will be added to an enclosed compost pile, separate from the one we use in our garden, and over time, my own human poop will turn into rich, dark compost that we will use on our orchard and shrubs.
My family’s bucket toilet is a very basic example of a composting toilet, a waterless system that takes advantage of the natural process of decomposition to turn human waste into a soil amendment. In an off-grid situation, composting toilets are an ideal solution for waste management because they do not require water or electricity. But increasingly, even urban or rural dwellers concerned with the environmental impact of our modern sewer system are turning to composting toilets as an
alternative to traditional flush toilets.
What is a composting toilet?
Composting toilets run the gamut from simple DIY systems like the bucket approach described above, to commercial systems that conform to building codes. For the past 14 years, my family has used a variety of composting toilets, including a simple bucket, a hand-dug pit latrine, a homemade Clivus multrum-style unit, and a commercial Sun-Mar composting toilet. The process of using each of these composting toilets is relatively simple and consistent – do your business, and add a “bulking agent” such as peat moss or sawdust to provide air space for aerobic decomposition, and to control odors and insects. What happens next varies from system to system.
For instance, when our bucket fills, we manually transfer the contents to a larger pile, where it composts in isolation. Microorganisms, including heat-loving bacteria break down the human excrement in a relatively rapid aerobic process, akin to a garden compost pile. In some commercial systems, a fan provides a flow of oxygen and removes odors and excess moisture, and the waste decomposes in the unit, to be removed when it has been composted. Potential pathogens present in the waste are either killed by the high temperatures of decomposition, or die-off after composting for long periods of time. The end result is topsoil-like material that is appropriate for use on fruit trees or shrubs, or even in the garden.
Benefits of Using a Composting Toilet
For the modern homesteader, composting toilets offer many benefits. At our stage of developing our homestead, we do not have the option of a flush toilet, and our composting toilet has been a simple and effective way to manage human waste. But even for homesteaders with access to city or well water, a waterless composting toilet system represents a significant decrease in water consumption, and minimizes the environmental impacts of adding human excrement to our potable water system. Diverting solid waste also facilitates creating a greywater system for your homestead. Humanure, when fully decomposed, is a safe and rich source of fertilizer for your food forest. And finally, composting toilets provide you with a practically fail-proof way to go to the bathroom, even in situations such as water-shortages or plumbing problems.
What are some of the challenges?
There are some inherent challenges with a composting toilet system, namely odor, bug problems, and effort (and perhaps cost, if you’re considering purchasing a code-approved commercial unit). Sawdust and peat moss are incredibly effective at controlling odor, but when a system gets more use than it is designed for, such as when you’re hosting house guests, compositing toilets can develop an odor. In our last home, we had a horrible infestation of what I referred to as “poo moths.” We simply could not rid our toilet of these pests without resorting to an insecticide. And while many commercial systems are created to minimize human contact with waste, there may be effort required to remove the composted humanure from your system.
It is also important to consider local building codes, and to employ common sense when designing a composting toilet system. A pit latrine, for instance, should only be used in areas where groundwater contamination is not a concern. Some rural areas do not have building codes governing small parcels, allowing you to install your system of choice. But most cities require code-approved commercially made composting toilets.
The Bottom Line
Homesteaders wanting to increase self-sufficiency, lighten their load on the earth, create closed loop systems on their land, and lower costs should seriously consider a composting toilet system. It’s empowering to watch something that most people consider an unpleasant waste product become something of value, simply through the natural process of decomposition. And our apple orchard certainly thrived with the addition of rich humanure compost.
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