They said it could never happen. But with Glastonbury taking the lead, the natural, water-saving toilet system is gaining popularity
Until now the spread of the composting toilet has been one of environmentalism’s quieter and more unassuming movements – as it were. That’s despite the fact that the water-flush toilet devours 30% of the UK’s water supply.
But now the composting toilet is on the up, and we’re teetering on the cusp of a small-scale restroom revolution. This year, Glastonbury festival set a precedent by replacing the much-feared blue plastic chemical loos with swanky, stench-free waterless dunnies. “A world record … in all the history of shitting,” according to toilet supplier Hamish Skermer. It’s a move that has left the industry “wide open to everyone”, according to Dave Wood of the Thunderbox Collective, supplier of portable compost toilets. “The rest of the festivals will follow suit.”
Away from the muddy fields of Worthy Farm, Richard Saillet from Ecotoilets reckons there are about 2,500 domestic composting loos installed in the UK, of which they have installed 1,000. “That only includes complete toilets,” he says. “There are many thousands of composting toilets which are either completely self-built or constructed using some bought toilet parts.” True, when stacked against countrywide flushing stats, it’s doesn’t immediately sound like a watershed moment. After all, according to Waterwise, there are about 45m toilets in the UK, which equals 2bn litres of flushed, wasted water a day.
But Saillet is excited nevertheless. “Our sales have been doubling year-on-year for the last three years,” he says. “We are currently selling a toilet a day and looking to double our staff this year to deal with the demand and extra warehousing to hold stock. It’s taken off faster than we can cope with.”
The working of a compost toilet is, in principle, nothing particularly complex. Human faeces in the presence of oxygen naturally breaks down into pathogen-free compost – another reason why dumping it into water is a pretty silly idea. Urine, which is sterile on exit and full of nitrogen, is an excellent fertiliser straight out of the tube. The tricky bit is funnelling the liquids away from the solids. To solve this, most composting toilets have a twin bowl, making natural funnels for front and back expulsions, while others use a pump to divert liquids elsewhere and an electric vent to stop smells. As for the solids, they just need to be stored until composted, a process that can take anywhere between six months (domestic) or two years (large scale).
Saillet from Ecotoilets explains: “The first thing we do in a normal toilet is drown all the good bugs, and the only ones left smell, which is what people expect. The smell is normally people’s first objection but we have a toilet that doesn’t smell even if you have a good curry the night before.”
Visually they aren’t what most people expect either. Admittedly, festival and other outdoor loos still have that Don’t Look Down feel about them, and tend to be more rustic looking. The Thunderbox, for example, started life as a way for forester Wood to “add value” to his product (trees), so he created little log cabins to house composting toilets. Domestic composting toilets, however, look just like your everyday WC. Except for maybe the Flame 8000, a terrifying sounding incinerating loo available for a cool $2,999, which doesn’t look particularly inviting. Make sure you’re fully off before flushing.
Perhaps most surprising is how little actually comes out the other end. A 25-litre container can take two people up to 10 weeks to fill. Richard says, “When you open the toilet up to take the container out all you see is soiled toilet paper, and there’s a lid for the bin. You only empty it every two or three months anyway, and it’s perfectly safe to put on your garden compost heap. Changing the kitchen bin is a more unpleasant task. People think that it’s going to smell, or object to having to empty it, or worry what it looks like. When people establish that our toilets are the same size as a WC and can be fitted in a matter of hours, they complain we’re not selling them more widely.”
Saillet says that business is booming mostly due to demand for toilets in cabins for outdoor clubs, such as lawn bowls, golf clubs, or allotment societies. Their greatest problem at the moment is building control and planning officers, who panic at the sight of something new, especially a toilet that requires no sewage outlet. In addition to that, he believes the government is largely ignoring our water problems. The Green Deal is focused on energy generation and efficiency, while most people aren’t yet on a water meter and can use as much as they like without it costing any more.
Grace Crabb runs a composting toilet courses at the Centre for Alternative Technology and is a little more restrained when it comes to the progress of water-free loos. “It’s most popular in outdoor settings,” she says. “But there are still very few integrated into new builds and successfully retrofitted. I can’t see there has been a major change in the last 10 years for this. Flush and forget will continue to be the dominating desire as long as people have to come into contact with the excrement in one way or another. I suspect very low flush toilets are the way to go.”
Yet Thunderbox’s Wood says he and his wife call the lavatorial side of the business their golden goose. “It started laying golden eggs and it just keeps going. It’s amazing how big composting toilets have got. We’ve been wondering when the bubble will burst, but as the glamping trend is dying down, allotments are picking up as a new market stream, and we’ve just developed a disabled access unit which should be at Glastonbury next year.”
Wood’s many years of experience tells him this isn’t a just a fad destined to disappear into the eco ether. There is an enthusiasm and passion around composting loos; people are excited when they turn up to build the units, and want to find out more. “My take on it is that when you go you know it’s not wasted. You’re engaging with what makes the world go round, you’re part of the big cycle. You’re actually contributing! We know this intuitively. Even though it’s waste it will compost down and something will grow and that makes people feel good.”
Saillet thinks it’s time for a change, and that water shortages are going to force us into it sooner or later anyway. “We’ve had 150 years throwing water on it and chucking it down the pipes, so we think it must be the right thing to do,” he says. “Even though before that we used to compost our waste. A third of our good drinking water goes down the WC where it’s polluted and we have to spend money cleaning it again. In the east and south-east of England there is a terrible shortage of water at the moment, a terrible problem trying to make the water last for people who need it. If everyone used a waterless toilet that problem is immediately reduced by 30%.”
Have you ever used a composting toilet? Would you install one in your home?
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