Composting Toilets

Stay flush-free wherever you may be! Composting toilets help cottage country stay green.

Written and Photos by: Steve Maxwell

Composting toilets are probably the world’s least glamorous product. Their homely reputation lives on because horror stories are so much fun to tell. Most cottagers love to recount tales about composting toilets gone terribly wrong, and I’m no exception.

When I was a teenager during the 1970s, my parents installed a composting toilet in our family cottage. The sight, smell and brown, oozing leakage from that ghastly thing gained our family a wide and embarrassing reputation. But as fun as these stories are to remember, there are two reasons I still have faith in these units. Besides the fact that the technology has improved a while lot over the last 30 years, composting toilets serve another useful purpose. They help preserve the beauty of cottage country in a way that nothing else can match.

Composting toilets use biological action to break down human waste in the presence of oxygen. They also reduce the volume of sewage produced because most use no flush water at all. Eliminating the need for expensive, disruptive and potentially polluting septic systems is one big advantage of the technology, but there’s more. If you’ve ever seen a beautiful woodlot hacked down to make room for a raised weeping bed of the grass-covered sand required for a septic system, you’ll understand the aesthetic value of the composting option. They help people tread much more lightly on the land, and these days they work, too.

There are two main categories of composting toilets. Self-contained units are the least expensive to buy and the easiest to install. Slide one into your bathroom, install a rooftop vent, fill the unit with compost starter and you’re ready to go. Composting occurs in a chamber directly underneath the seat, and as unlikely as it sounds, the process is odourless when operating properly. Most units have an internal electric fan that keeps air moving out of the unit and up the stack. Internal heating coils also keep the compost chamber warm enough to encourage vigorous decomposition.

From personal experience, I know that the biggest drawback to self-contained composting toilets is personal proximity to the waste. Even if it doesn’t smell, rather shocking sights are never far from view. This is why remote composting toilets were invented. They yield more civilized performance by separating the toilet seat from the composting chamber down below. A large pipe connects the two, making it easier to keep the decomposition process hidden. Remote units also have a higher compost capacity, lengthening the time span that’s possible between compost emptying sessions. Some are even designed to handle toilets that flush tiny amounts of water during use. On the downside, remote composting units need much more space than self-contained models.

Composting toilets will probably never be as easy to use and as aesthetically pleasing as flush toilets, at least not at first glance. But today’s best composting toilets do work, and when you raise your gaze to see the larger picture, they’re also one of the best ways to keep cottage country clean, green and pristine.