Everyone does it, but not everyone wants to talk about it; even fewer people want to put it on their yard. But while poo might still be far from an appropriate dinnertime conversation topic, composting it and using it as a fertiliser actually makes quite a lot of sense, particularly as pressure on scarce resources across the world shows no signs of easing. Contrary to popular belief, composting toilets aren’t grimy, black hole outhouses - they can look just the same as a regular toilet, and are often much less odorous. So – should we all be using them?
Gardening enthusiasts know composting involves the aerobic, biological decomposition of organic matter for the purpose of fertilising crops or plants. Traditionally, the average compost pile includes green kitchen scraps, soil and maybe a few earthworms for good measure. In 2017, compost can (and often does) include human excrement and recycled loo paper. When human waste is composted properly in a composting toilet, disease pathogens are destroyed, making it a suitable food for both food and agricultural crops. All it takes is a container, a toilet seat and some organic material to offset the nitrogen, like wood shavings or shredded hemp.
The ‘humanure’ term was popularised by Joseph Jenkins, a Pennsylvania-based slate-roofing contractor turned niche literary sensation with his 2005 book, The Humanure Handbook. In chapters with titles like ‘Crap Happens: Something’s About To Hit The Fan,” and “A Day In The Life of a Turd,” Jenkins divulges the secrets of – you guessed it – poop, along with just how we can harness its power and reduce our ecological footprint.
Alan Coy is someone who needs no convincing. A Cowamarup, Western Australia resident, he’s been the happy user of a composting toilet for four years – and he’s only lost one friend as a result. “Most people are pleasantly surprised,” he tells SBS. “They approach it with a degree of curiosity. We hardly ever have any negative responses from friends, and it’s definitely been an upgrade from a regular toilet.”
“The only difference in using a composting toilet instead of a conventional toilet is having to input a scoop of shredded hemp in after you make your deposit,” Coy says. It's better to use recycled toilet paper in composting toilets as it breaks down faster and for many, this is an easy change to make. “From a maintenance point of view, we remove a 10L domestic bucket of waste every 12-18 months.” Coy explains that all waterless composting toilet systems need an extraction fan, which not only aids in odour removal but also draws 98 per cent of the moisture from the waste. “The only onerous part of it is every 4-6 weeks I need to open the unit to level the stack out.”
We hardly ever have any negative responses from friends, and it’s definitely been an upgrade from a regular toilet.
Although using humanure as crop fertiliser has been deemed safe, know that if you’re planning on ripping out your plumbing and setting up a waterless toilet you’ll be bound by local and state government standards. “Waterless composting toilets are only as good as the use and maintenance of their occupier, and they’re normally only suitable for single houses, not medium or high-density living,” a spokesperson from NSW Health tells SBS. “People who want to use composting toilets must obtain council approval before installing them. Council only approves systems that are accredited by NSW Health.”
Nevertheless, composting toilets are slowly starting to inch their way into the mainstream. One-fifth of the toilets at this year’s famed Glastonbury Festival in the UK was composting toilets, the contents of which will be used to fertilise the land around the festival grounds. ‘Drop toilets’ are certainly the norm in many of the most densely populated countries on earth, and often act as the most logical solution to resource use problems. India's Defence Research and Development Organisation recently partnered with UK-based engineering firm Capparo Group to construct 'biotoilets' for villages across India, in the hopes of tackling the country's waste management and sanitation problems.
“In places where water is a scarce commodity, shitting in it and flushing it away doesn’t make sense,” says Anthony Smith, a Western Australia based environmental engineer and founder of Water Wally, a composting toilet and greywater management company. “The thing that’s relevant to developing communities, both abroad and in Australia, is that you’re taking two resources – one being water, and the other being potential fertiliser – mixing them together in what you call sewage, and then you’ve got polluted wastewater that needs to be managed.” In other words, no flushing toilets = no waste.
Of course, to those accustomed to taking a seat on the porcelain throne, composting human waste may sound extreme. Unsurprisingly, composting toilets are targets of a slight perception problem – finding people enthusiastic about recycling human waste (as opposed to flushing it) is easier said than done. Perhaps Jenkins puts it best: “Recycling your own crap can be as bizarre to some people as a chicken with tits. You could suddenly beam down from the planet Uranus and raise fewer eyebrows than someone who refuses to flush.”
“Attitudes have been changing very, very slowly,” Smith says. “It’s a tricky one because the research done shows that composting will kill all the pathogens,” he says. “Then again, I can’t think of too many people to use their own shit on their vegetable garden.”
It might be a little while yet before composting toilets appear on every corner.