Composting Toilet, Pros and Cons


I've got some shit to talk about. Literally.

In all my research for tiny houses, it looks like the majority of dwellers use some kind of a composting toilet. Which makes sense because then you don't need to worry about plumbing, having extra water, and hooking into some kind of sewer or septic tank. If you Google "composting toilet", you will see loads of different options: ones that reduce mess or possible smell by using multiple compartments or turn cranks; ones that require electricity so it can heat up waste and condense it; and varying sizes including huge (and I mean giant!) thrones. These all range in price but can be up to over a thousand dollars!

We decided to go with the smallest, cheapest version we could find: a 5 gallon bucket.

We read the fascinating book, The Humanure Handbook, and learned everything we would ever want to know about not just composting in general (anything that rots can be composted! Kitchen scraps, cotton balls, egg shells, newspapers, cardboard, yard waste, etc.) but about composting urine and feces specifically. It is a fascinating book that has a compelling argument for why everyone should compost in all areas of their lives, but especially for why it is so important to compost our own human waste! I highly recommend this book to anyone who is thinking about going tiny, interested in learning about composting, or those who are fed up with clogging toilets and paying high water bills.

Last year as we were finishing Lil Blue, Jordan and I spent a weekend building our toilet and completing our bathroom. We decided to build a bench toilet, of sorts. We cut out a hole in a slab of plywood that would fit around the 5 gallon bucket. It sits end-to-end in our bathroom (3ft in width) and we can sit a normal looking toilet seat on it. Then we screwed in another piece of plywood as a front panel, enclosing the bucket and giving us storage space beneath this bench to hold toilet paper, paper towels, etc. The top piece is hinged to the wall so we can lift it up as we need to switch out our bucket.

A composting bucket is surprisingly easy to use. I was not thrilled by the idea of shitting into a bucket when we first were looking to go tiny. But I was soon converted. After you go, you layer some kind of a cover material over anything that is wet or that could smell, basically creating a barrier between that and the open air. We tried pine wood shavings at first and didn't love it. Plus we learned that that doesn't compost too well. So we switched to peat moss. We keep a bucket on the top of the toilet bench with a scooper in it so we can quickly what we've just left behind. We keep the rest of our bulk buy of peat moss in our shower--since we aren't hooked up to water right now and can't use our shower. The system works really well.

The benefits of a composting toilet are many:

  1. Because there is no water, there is no sound echoing any plops or splashes...or worse.
  2. Because of the peat moss barrier, there is hardly any smell, and when there is, it doesn't last very long. 
  3. It's so cheap! We don't have to pay for the water a toilet uses to flush or for plumbing repairs. 
  4. It's incredibly easy to clean! We just take the bucket out every week (or more like, fill a bucket, put a lid on it and let it sit for a week while we fill the other one; that way we empty only once every two weeks) to the compost pile, dump it, cover it with hay or grass clippings, and wash the whole thing out with soapy water that also goes into the compost pile. Voila! Clean bathroom. (This is also very easy for me to say because Jordan is the one who is in charge of the composting and cleaning! Lucky me!)
  5. We can compost other things in there--we throw Jordan's coffee grounds in there every morning!
  6. It's great for the environment! We are conserving water as well as creating beautiful compost to use in our gardens in the future.

There are, however, a few drawbacks:

  1. Peat moss gets everywhere! It's such a pain. It's pretty much contained to the bathroom but any time we need to refill our moss bucket, peat moss dust clouds go flying. It's all over the shower, the toilet bench, and it creates just a dusty layer over things like the light switch, the shower curtain rod, and the light fixture. It even embeds itself on the underside of the shower curtain rings! When you scoop it into the toilet after you've done your business, it often gets your hands dusty. It's the thing I hate the most about the composting toilet.
  2. People don't love the idea of using it when they visit...but it is a new experience for them when they need to!
  3. It is not a fun chore to do. Granted, you clean a toilet once every two weeks instead of every week in a normal bathroom. But, trudging out into the blustery winter or the scorching summer adds to the already unpleasant nature of the type of work you are doing.

Just last week, we had our first ever Tiny House Bathroom Emergency. Over breakfast one morning, Jordan was choking his food down while trying to figure out who the culprit was of unleashing a foul stench. I blamed Foxy Brown. But I was WRONG! It turns out that the bucket we had put in the bathroom had a crack in it.....and was leaking!! This is not a situation we anticipated as we thought through going with this option a year ago. We just never even thought about it! If you have a leaking toilet at home, it usually consists of leaking toilet water....which is gross, but not that bad. If you have a leaking composting toilet, it is leaking shit filled urine and peat moss! The mess seeped under the front panel of our toilet and was soaked up through the raw edge, warping and flaring the wood. After scrubbing and cleaning and changing out the bucket, we had to spend the weekend getting new wood, cutting it, and staining it again. Gross.....

Now we know this is a possibility. And we know to look at our buckets as we switch them out each time to make sure that they are still in good working order. Even now, I would still recommend a composting toilet to anyone! Hell, I'd even want to continue composting when we move into a more "normal" house. I don't want to deal with a septic tank or plumbing. This was a gross ordeal but is all part of this adventure! We've had wonderful moments as we live this lifestyle, we've had many difficult times, and now we have experienced the disgusting part. It all adds to the story.