Dealing with s**t

01/06/2011 § 5 Comments

If you spend any decent period of time thinking about how to reduce your carbon emissions and live more sustainably, you will sooner or later inevitably start thinking about human waste, or s**t as it is colloquially known.

compost loo 1 June (no seat yet, and side wall removed)

We don’t really like to talk about this stuff, do we?  We don’t even like to think about it. We like to go quietly into a room, on our own, do our business, and flush the chain. End of story. Yet the way we deal with our human waste (I will call it HW to avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities) has significant ecological impact. Ignoring it is not a sustainable option.

My regular readers (hello Mum) will by now be used to me covering a fairly eclectic range of topics. Still they probably hadn’t anticipated me talking about this. However, having promised myself I would not shy away from any subject, and having spent many hours over the last week planning and building a compost loo in our garden, I feel I have to share my journey of exploration into dealing with my SHW (solid HW) and LHW (liquid HW).

I will quite understand if you choose not to read further. For some people this subject will be beyond the pale. But for you other intrepid souls, read on and expand your minds!

My interest in the subject began eight years ago when on retreat in Herefordshire. Our host had a compost loo, as well as a WC (water closet) for those who couldn’t face a close encounter with their own HW. WCs are great if we don’t want to think about our HW. But from an ecological perspective there are three little problems with them:

  1. They use considerable amounts of drinking water (according to one estimate they account for one third of domestic water consumption in the UK). The current drought in eastern parts of England is a reminder how significant this may become in the future;
  2. Significant energy and chemicals are needed to transport and process the waste and water at some distant location; and
  3. There are nutrients in HW (particularly potash) that could be usefully put into the soil to fertilise plants, rather than being thrown away.

There are ways of reducing the water usage of our WCs. We can invest in efficient WCs that consume less water. We can go one step further and re-plumb our houses so that we flush the loos with rainwater, not drinking water. A simpler and cheaper option is not to flush the toilet every time (there is even a mantra for this – “if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down!”).

But inspired by my experience in Herefordshire, I have opted for the more radical solution, which is to build a compost loo in the garden (see photo). I wanted to do this many years ago, but Dasha felt that in our tiny garden in Camden it would be rather extreme and would cause a lot of aggravation. I decided she was probably right… But now we have a large garden in the country, there is no holding me.

The loo is not complete yet – in fact I am still working on the final details of the design. I started off with gay abandon, choosing a quiet and secluded spot in the garden, then digging a hole and constructing a framework around it on which to place a seat. But then I had to pause and re-think. It is not so simple. Key design considerations include:

–       designing the seat, and the pedestal it sits on, so that it is comfortable and can be cleaned easily when wet.

–       designing the “container” of the HW so that excess water drains away and the HW can rot down without odour like a compost heap, rather than sitting and smelling like raw sewage.

–       allowing for decomposed SHW to be moved along and out while new SHW is added.

–       keeping rodents and flies out (apparently for some creatures HW is the equivalent of foie gras).

I haven’t solved all these yet, although given another few days I think I will have made the key design decisions. I will update you on my solutions via this blog (and please e-mail if you want further information).

It seems to me really important that the loo is not only functional but also pleasant to use. I intend to plant trees and shrubs around it. And you will note I have chosen a fresh air version – i.e. there is no roof, and the walls only come up to waist height (or rather shoulder height when you are seated), to allow the user to admire the surroundings while doing his or her business. Actually I am considering adding a roof (although I may still not add any walls), since I would like this to be used all year round, and also because I want to keep excess water out of the HW container.

That’s enough for now. I urge anyone really interested in this subject to read the classic text “Lifting the lid” published by the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. And I look forward to hearing from other pioneers who have experience in this area.

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