Wednesday, January 23, 2008

From your homemade foods to your homemade toilet

These days, people seem to be squeamish about human wastes. I won't lie and say that I'm not one of them (I was raised that way after all)... but I do understand the importance of putting back whatever we take from the earth. Enter the composting toilet.

As the name implies, the purpose of a composting toilet is to compost human wastes, or humanure. "Ewww" might be the first response, but animal wastes are a common garden fertilizer, and human waste is no different. Since I won't have any animals, it's human waste or no waste for me.

John Seymour explains the logic of the composting toilet (he calls it a dry toilet, and his specific design is the Thunderbox loo) in The Self-sufficient Life and How to Live It. Flush toilets are expensive, and not only waste water with each flush, but add pollutants to otherwise drinkable water. The nutrients in humanure are a necessary component in maintaining soil fertility, but with the simple push of a lever it's out of sight and out of mind.

I really wish you could see the picture that John included in his book. My description just won't do it any justice. A small building or room is built with a space left underneath for the collection of waste.Two holes are cut in the floor, and the actual toilet sits on one hole at a time. After the first hole is filled, the toilet is moved to the second hole and the first is left to compost. Ventilation pipes take gases and smells away from the composting compartment. After each person takes care of business, they just add a cupful of sawdust or other such material to keep the consistency just right.

I've actually had the pleasure of using one of the Self-contained Sun-Mar composting toilets this summer when I worked out on the farm. Contrary to what you might think, it's actually very clean, easy to use, and free of odor. You can also get toilets that look like normal toilets and have a compartment under the floor for catching the wastes, whereas the Sun-Mar toilet I linked to does the actual composting itself.

To go along with all of this info is a story I heard on the topic. I don't know if it's myth or reality, but supposedly Japanese farmers put a lot of effort into creating very ornate and very beautiful outhouses that they would place out by the road. Human waste was such a valuable resource to the farmers that they wanted to attract anyone that was traveling by to come leave precious fertilizer that they could use on their farm. Crazy? Even if it is, it still makes perfect sense from the point of view of a self-supporter.

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