Anyone who has ever been on a camping or caravanning holiday probably has a tale to tell about a chemical or other “green” toilets. It’s therefore quite surprising to learn that an increasing number of people are switching to using composting toilets as an alternative to the traditional flush version that’s connected to the sewers system which most of us have at home. A composting toilet is becoming more mainstream, but what are they and how do composting toilets work?
Differences from a traditional toilet
We’re all familiar with the standard toilets fitted in most UK homes, where we flush the waste away using water and it’s whisked into the sewerage system, ultimately becoming someone else’s problem. A composting toilet is often known as a “dry” system as it does not use water to flush. This makes it a popular choice for people who are living in remote areas and are not connected to mains sewers or don’t want to fit a septic tank. Composting toilets also deal with the waste we produce rather than flushing it away for someone else to treat and filter
The main idea behind a composting toilet is that it creates the correct environment to get to work on the waste we produce and break it down, eventually turning it into a type of fertiliser which can be used on the garden. The basic principle is not unlike your garden compost bin; you add tea bags and potato peelings at the top, and get useable compost out of the bottom several months later. Each composting toilet has a large tank or drum which provides the correct environment for bacteria to get rid of our waste. The microbes need the right balance of oxygen, warmth, water and organic material to feed on to thrive, and composting toilets have been carefully designed to provide this. In most cases, the homeowner adds peat or another type of compost into the drum and rotates it regularly to make sure the waste is being broken down evenly.
Most composting toilets look like a standard toilet in your bathroom, albeit a toilet without a flush. You will also have a large tank where the bacteria get to work. In smaller composting toilets designed for occasional use (such as in a garden room) this can be directly under the loo, but composting toilets designed to deal with a whole family’s waste will need a larger tank located in basement, cellar or even outside.
Isn’t this all a bit disgusting and smelly?
We’re all so used to the idea that our bodily waste is just flushed away into the sewers that we’ve forgotten this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Sewage systems have only been around for 150 years, and before that, living in towns and cities was a lot more smelly and unhygienic (see my article on the history of sewers to learn more). Composting toilets are designed to provide the bacteria with a constant supply of fresh air to keep them working, and this draws any smells away from the toilet. Many users find that they are a lot less smelly than a traditional toilet. The only thing you need to be careful with is cleaning; harsh chemical cleaners or bleach will kill off the friendly bacteria which are busy breaking down your waste and will make your toilet useless. Stick to plain warm water, or special natural soaps which will not harm the bacteria. After the bacteria have done their job and created your compost, this is odour-free. You simply remove it from a drawer at the bottom of the toilet and then dig it into your garden.
Disadvantages of composting toilets
A composting toilet is a very eco-friendly choice to make, but not one which is commonplace. People who opt for this type of loo are often seen as a bit wacky and alternative. Opinions are changing as we all become more conscious of our impact on the environment, but we’d rather switch to using rainwater harvesting or have a low flush toilet then consider a composting loo. Composting toilets are therefore a niche product and very expensive when compared with a traditional loo. You can expect to pay around £1000 for the basic kit, and then there will be additional costs for installation and regular maintenance.
Want to know more?
There’s answers to many more questions in this video. Although at 19 minutes long you might want to grab a cup of tea first!
Did you like this article? Share it on your site by copying the embed code below: