Author Archive

Alan Foljambe

Alan Foljambe is a writer, art historian and environmental activist from Kingston, Ontario. His primary areas of interest are peak oil, consumerism and wilderness preservation. Alan is a member of Transition Kingston, a group that is working to move Kingston away from oil dependency and toward active transportation, energy conservation and local food security. In 2009, Alan received a PhD in Art History from the University of Manchester.

Save water and money with a composting toilet

Composting toilets have been a common sight at cottages, cabins and other remote sites for decades. In 2011, as growing problems of water supply, water quality and drought become ever more evident to the public, the idea of a toilet that uses no water is growing in popularity.

Many companies are taking advantage of this popularity and marketing a wide variety of waterless toilets. Some are freestanding, some are connected to under-floor holding tanks, some use electric fans and some are completely passive. All of them, however, are a major investment for a person of average or lower income. Commercial composting toilets start at around $600.00, and can easily cost more than $1000.00.

Happily, Joseph Jenkins offers an excellent alternative in his book The Humanure Handbook [Chelsea Green, 2005]. For the cost of a five gallon bucket and a few pieces of wood, you can reduce the amount of drinking water that you flush down the toilet to zero. The secret lies in the proper use of sawmill sawdust to suppress odors and to assist in the composting process. The bucket is emptied into an outdoor composting bin, and Mother Nature takes care of the rest.

Over the span of 250 pages, Jenkins explains everything you need to know about composting toilets, and goes into great detail about the safety of compost with human waste in it, effectively counteracting those he accuses of “fecophobia.” 

According to Jenkins, the traditional use of “night soil,” or uncomposted human waste, on agricultural fields in Asia, as well as the controversial practice of spreading sewage sludge on fields in North America, have given human waste a bad name. He explains the critical difference between raw waste, sewage sludge and composted waste. Raw human waste is smelly and unhealthy, while sewage sludge is mixed with anything and everything that goes down storm drains or toilets, including pharmaceuticals, petroleum products and other toxins. Composted human waste, particularly if it has been raised to a temperature high enough to encourage thermophilic microorganisms, is not only safe but a great asset to soil health.

Modern agriculture has created a linear system that is dependent on massive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, followed by the disposal of human waste into increasingly scarce supplies of clean water. By replacing the chemicals with compost, and removing the waste from the water, we can begin to reconnect a circular system that is healthy, self-regulating and sustainable.

In keeping with Bill Mollison’s permaculture proverb that “the problem is the solution,” Jenkins demonstrates how the very source of widespread poor health and water pollution can be transformed, through the alchemical magic of composting, into a valuable resource.


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