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Composting Toilets...Not Just For Cabins

Updated on February 4, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

What Is A Composting or Waterless Toilet?

Composting, or waterless toilets have long been used in remote hunting cabins but over the last few years have begun to be considered for environmentally responsible suburban and urban homes as well. There are as many benefits to a composting toilet as there are arguments against it by the unenlightened! For many years humans have had to deal wisely with their own waste- it has only been over the last century that we have had the ability to just "flush it away" as a general population. This mentality has helped to cause some of the environmental problems we have today.

Composting toilets can be a real help to the environment; conserving water (and saving money on water bills), avoid pollutants being dispersed into waterways, and even enriching the soil!

A composting toilet can be manufactured in a number of ways. By it's very definition, a waterless toilet uses little or no water and instead, relies on bacteria to break down waste into a type of humus. The humus is sanitary because of the bacterial action, and in many countries is used on edible crops as fertilizer, although this is not legal for commercial growers in the United States. The toilet can be self contained, collecting waste in the bottom of the receptacle, or can be attached by pipeline to a larger collection area.

How Does A Composting Toilet Work?

A composting toilet that is properly maintained does not smell. This is often one of the first arguments against it and it is just not valid. Decomposition in the holding tank is achieved by biochemical interaction. Simply said, decomposing materials create a mini-environment for bacteria which digest the excrement and turn it into hygienic fertilizer in about 6 months.

There are two main types of waterless toilets.

Continuous Composting Toilet

The continuous composting toilet is a single container holding tank where the waste decomposes as it moves through the chamber and is removed as compost.

The advantages of this type are obvious. The design makes it look like a normal toilet, one which you see every day in your own bathroom. It fits easily into any bathroom design and is not so obviously something "weird".

The potential problem is that fresh waste is deposited on top of decomposed waste, effectively re-contaminating what has all ready been sanitized. The waste can get impacted and be difficult to remove however good inspection and maintenance practices will keep this problem at a minimum.

Batch Composting Toilet

Batch composting toilets consist of two containers that are alternated so that one lies "fallow" and has time to compost as the other is being actively used. Because of this the problem of re-contamination of composted materials is at a minimum.

The potential problem is that you have to remove the full container and replace it with an empty container. This type will look different from a regular toilet and will also take up more space in the bathroom.


Generally sawdust is added to the holding tank with each use. This creates the proper environment and aeration for the bacteria to thrive and digest the fecal material. If the toilet is well maintained and working properly there should be no smell, unless perhaps you have a very large family and it is 100 degrees! The compost should be removed from the container when it is sufficiently decomposed. The minimum fallow, or decomposition, time is 6 months. During that time the action of the microbes in the compost raise the temperature above 113 F which begins the sanitation process.

The containers will need to be cleaned thoroughly after they are emptied. It is a good idea to use soap and let the container dry in the sun before replacing. Be sure and follow manufacturer's directions carefully.

But Is It Legal?

Composting toilets have approval from the Public Health Department on only seven states; Iowa,Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Vermont. The health department has a list of requirements the composting toilet must meet to maintain health standards but most of these will be automatically met by buying a commercially made composting toilet rather than making your own and following manufacturers directions carefully. Always check with your city to see if there are any permits or requirements locally,

C,K, Choi Building (30,000 sq ft) in Vancouver British Columbia is using composting toilets
C,K, Choi Building (30,000 sq ft) in Vancouver British Columbia is using composting toilets

Composting Toilets In Public

There are more and more companies using composting toilets in their quest for a greener America. The Bronx Zoo has installed a Clivus Multrum system and is now saving millions of gallons of water per year...The Island Wood School, Bainbridge Island, Wa. is using only composting toilets.

Radical Change

Composting toilet technology promises to have a radical impact on the environment in a positive way over the next decade. As this system becomes more popular more of our precious resource, water, will be saved and we will all only benefit from that.


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    • Alison Clement profile image

      Alison Clement 6 years ago from western Oregon

      Thanks for a great article. We created our own primitive composing toilet a few years back when we lived in the woods. Now researching something a little more sophisticated. I was glad to find your article.

    • john000 profile image

      John R Wilsdon 7 years ago from Superior, Arizona

      This is great information. I was not aware of this type of toilet. Anything that will save that much water will become extremely important. Thank you for sharing.

    • RunAbstract profile image

      RunAbstract 7 years ago from USA

      Oh, a las after my own heart! Vive a la humanure!

      Please come read my article:

      I would love your feedback.

      Thank you for sharing this timely and responsible article!

    • profile image

      Jen 8 years ago

      I compost my pet waste using worms. I can't wait to be able to implement one of these into my home for human use.

    • The Real Tomato profile image

      The Real Tomato 9 years ago

      Very exciting to see others promoting this method of waste management. Thumbs up!

      Edit: To find out if it is legal in your area the counties city building and code departement will have the regulations/codes.

    • profile image

      TraceyKy 10 years ago

      We have been using a primitive form of composting toilet the last 7 years. Waste goes in a "toilet" equipped with a 5 gallon bucket, and is covered with sawdust (gathered from a local sawmill free) after each visit. It is emptied daily into a composting bin out back and covered with more sawdust or shredded leaves. We change bins yearly, and the 3 year old dirt is spread in our orchard. Amazing how well it works! Virtually no odor, and the "dirt" is indistinguishable from "bought compost"

    • Marye Audet profile image

      Marye Audet 10 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      Once something has composted the action of the bacteria has sanitized most of the germs...and since humanure is used in countries we buy produce from anyway most of us have experienced produced grown with this fertilizer without knowing it... :)

    • cgull8m profile image

      cgull8m 10 years ago from North Carolina

      Good post, people always shun this topic, but the fertilizer they use is similar, they don't know that. I hope they see the beneficial side of it.