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Off The Grid: Composting Toilets

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RVers are no strangers to toilet talk. Whether it’s discussing the best chemical treatments, where the nearest dump station is, or how to properly flush your black tank, the RV lifestyle doesn’t offer a lot of room for shyness when the topic of human waste is at hand. So, with that same shameless spirit, let’s delve into another realm of waste management: the mystifying composting toilet.

If you’re familiar with off-the-grid living, then you already know that composting toilets are a cost-efficient and eco-friendly alternative to holding tanks and traditional septic systems. But for those who aren’t quite as keen on lavatory logistics, you might find yourself curious about how composting toilets work and how they can help you live more sustainably. So without further ado, let’s take a closer look!

What Is a Composting Toilet?

Composting toilets can take on many forms. While self-contained and central composting toilet systems exist, they can cost upwards of $1,000 and many require electricity to run ventilation and heating components. Basic composting toilets, however, can be made for less than $50 and they require no electricity to use, making them ideal for off-the-grid living. These composting toilets are essentially a collection of devices that consist of a 5-gallon bucket, a plastic toilet seat, and a little bit of craftsmanship.

How Do Composting Toilets Work?

It’s actually pretty simple and a lot less appalling than you might think. Rather than contaminate perfectly good drinking water with your waste before flushing it away to be chemically treated at a high-cost-to-run treatment plant, you instead recycle your waste by turning it into nutrient-rich soil. Similar to how manure is doted as excellent fertilizer, human excrement is organic matter that boasts the same beneficial properties that get wasted once flushed away. While most composting toilets resemble traditional toilets both in appearance and application, the main difference is that after you go to the bathroom, instead of pulling a flush lever, you’ll sprinkle on a layer of organic cover material. Once your toilet starts to fill, you’ll simply walk it out to the compost pile and empty it.

But What About the Odor?

Worrying about the smell always seems to be people’s biggest concern (justifiably so!). The secret to getting rid of any foul smells is the organic cover material. Saw dust is a popular option, although peat moss, rice hulls, rotted leaves, grass clippings, and even shredded junk mail can be used! Before using your composting toilet, always put down about two inches of cover material in the bottom of your bucket. Then, after each use, just sprinkle on an additional layer to completely cover up any excrement. And voilà, just like that the odor is eliminated!

Benefits Of Composting Toilets

Although you will have to keep a stock of organic cover material handy and make the occasional trip out to your compost pile, the benefits of using a composting toilet far outweigh the inconveniences. And if that isn’t enough of an incentive, these benefits even extend beyond you to help the environment as well. Here's how:

    • Protect against pollution: A grotesque amount of sewage sludge gets deposited into landfills, where it can and does leach into the ground. Here it contaminates the groundwater, surface water, and soil. Composting toilets let you keep your waste out of landfills by letting the natural decomposition process return it back to the earth in a way that actually replenishes the soil. Also consider making your own DIY handsoap and shampoo to further your environmental do-good actions to help keep zillions of plastic bottles and harsh chemicals out of landfills.

    • Save water and energy: When considering that a single flush can use upwards of three gallons of clean, purified water, it should come as no surprise that a reported 30% of household water gets used just for flushing toilets. Composting toilets use absolutely no water. Zero. Zilch.

    • Create nutrient-rich dirt: Instead of polluting the earth with your waste, composting toilets let you utilize the power of aerobic bacteria to turn your waste into a resource that actually benefits the environment. The end result of your composting efforts will leave you with high-quality, nutrient-rich soil, known as humus, which can be used in your flower gardens and plant beds.

For those who haven’t used a composting toilet, the idea of collecting your waste can seem pretty strange. But for those who have, the idea of pooping into purified water is perplexing and seems downright wasteful. Especially when considering what a limited resource fresh water is on our planet. So don’t ruin perfectly good drinking water or the potential for perfectly good compost either, and start turning your waste into a resource by embracing compost toilets into your life!

For more information on composting toilets and how you can build your own, check out The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, which can be read online for free!

Do you utilize a composting toilet? What have you found that works well for supplies? Share your composting comments below!

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