Clockwise from above left: Humanure compost pile with cover material ready to use; Compost toilet with seat directly on bucket; Humanure compost pile, enclosed on four sides and well covered; Simple bucket compost toilet in a box. Photos by Emily Stokes
Our family has been recycling and reusing our humanure (human waste) for around seven years. We have used a bucket toilet system in both a suburban home on a small town block and on our current farm. We have always used bucket toilets alongside the existing flush toilet. The bucket literally sits in our bathroom next to the flush loo.
By doing so, we’ve taken the pressure off the septic and town sewerage systems already in place. This saves our precious drinking water, not to mention money and chemicals, from otherwise being poured into a system in which people have the convenience of simply flushing their waste away.
WHAT IS A BUCKET TOILET?
It’s a very easy and cheap way to take full responsibility for your own humanure; to compost it, recycle it and use it on your fruit trees or vegetable gardens. With the bucket system we are harnessing thermophilic (heat-loving) microorganisms that destroy human pathogens, converting humanure into sweet-smelling humus that can safely be used on food gardens.
It is safe as long as you follow a few simple steps.
HOW IT WORKS
Use your bucket toilet like any other toilet. Poo and urine can all go in the bucket. After each deposit, cover well with sawdust. Once the bucket is full, put the lid on tight and leave it to sit while you fill up a second bucket. It will be fine for a few months.
Then take both buckets out to your compost pile, dig a little depression on top and pour them in. Cover well with your cover material (carbon material such as bundles of weeds, hay, straw, etc.). Wash both buckets well and pour the water back onto your compost pile. Stay clean and don’t let this water spread anywhere else. Then simply line your bucket with sawdust and start over.
To make sure this thermophilic process is safe and effective you will need to keep your compost pile happy and hot.
- Keep the moisture content up. You’ll notice that your compost pile sinks down quite quickly; this is through moisture loss. If you’re not receiving adequate rainfall or you’re not adding enough moist material, water your pile (greywater can be used).
- Get your carbon/nitrogen ratio right, around 30/1. Humanure on its own contains too much nitrogen which is why we add the cover material. We have an abundance of African lovegrass (the local pasture weed) on our property, so whenever we slash it we leave piles beside the compost. Kitchen scraps are about the right ratio on their own, so add these whenever you can.
- Monitor the temperature. The top part of your compost pile, which will be where the hot composting is happening, needs to be between 50–65°∆C. Viruses and worm eggs will die if the temperature goes over 46°C for one week, or at least 50°∆C for 24 hours. The combination of temperature and time (letting it age for a year) will ensure that you end up with a valuable resource clear of pathogens. If in doubt, leave your pile to age for an extra year or only use your finished compost on fruit trees and flowers.
Worms will not appear in a thermophilic pile as it’s too hot. They will appear after the compost has aged though. If your pile is made directly on top of the soil, the worms will migrate in and out of your compost pile when it suits them. If you are worried about your humanure pile leaching, you can build it on a plastic liner and catch the runoff (which will only occur in heavy rainfall), then pour it back onto your pile. Note that this plastic liner may stop the migration of worms.
CAMPING & FESTIVALS
If you’re heading out to a festival or camping for the weekend, take your bucket toilet with you. No more having to use those festy portaloos or digging a hole near a waterway when camping. Pack a 20 litre bucket, stack another one inside it full of sawdust with a lid on, and you have yourself a handy bucket toilet when nature calls. Once you’ve used the bucket, put the lid on tight and when you get home add it to your compost pile.
You’re not dealing with sewage (waterborne excrement), which might be illegal. And you’re not building a composting toilet, which is something that may be regulated in your state. A sawdust bucket toilet doesn’t fit into these categories because you are composting outside your home.
If you’re building a new home, you’ll need to check with your local council to see what the regulations are for waterless compost toilets. If you can show that your compost toilet is a safe and responsible system that will cause no harm to the environment, they may be fine. You may need to follow certain specifications, such as having a door from the bathroom directly to the outside so that the bucket is not being carried through the house.
While there is some small effort in carting buckets around, I thoroughly enjoy recycling our humanure. It gives me great satisfaction to use this waste to increase the fertility of our soil. Our first pile of humanure was dark, crumbly, sweet-smelling and had the nearby tree sending roots right up into it. A joy to behold.
- The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins (Jenkins Publishing 1996)
- Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China Korea and Japan by F. H. King (Dover Publications 2011)
MAKING A BUCKET TOILET
STEP 1. You will need a 20 litre bucket. You may already have one around the house. Scavenge if you can, it obviously doesn’t need to be pristine.
STEP 2. Find yourself a second-hand toilet seat or buy a new one. It doesn’t need to be airtight.
STEP 3. Find a source of sawdust. Is there a sawmill in your area? They will give it away for free if you take your own sacks and fill them. Just make sure the timber is not treated. You can also use leaf mould, rice hulls, peat moss, ground newsprint or finely shredded paper as an alternative. A container of this material needs to be kept next to your bucket toilet at all times. Every time the toilet is used, cover your deposit well with sawdust and it won’t smell. I repeat, no smell if well-covered.
STEP 4. Build your compost pile. You may already have one. You can use the same pile for all of your human, food and animal waste. If you have to build one then source some free pallets. We made our compost bay with four pallets screwed together, no open side. If you can, build three bays side by side. One for the current compost pile, one for the compost that you will leave to age and one for your cover material. Your cover material can be hay, weeds, straw, grass clippings, leaves or whatever you have available. Every time you deposit the contents of your bucket onto the top of your pile, cover it well with hay or leaves. Keep it well covered. If there’s a smell, you haven’t covered it well enough.
STEP 5. If you want to get fancy, you could build a timber structure around your bucket. See pictures for ideas.
Emily Stokes lives with her family on a permaculture and holistic management-inspired property on the Far South Coast of NSW, regenerating the soil and her family’s health, and running traditional food workshops. See www.facebook.com/fermaculturefarm