Compost toilets: the practical meets the philosophical

by Claire Ogden


What's in a toilet? Well, apart from human excrement and some sawdust, a whole metaphor of sustainability. When we think about sustainability, we often think about solar panels, tree planting and electric cars. But considering that the global population is fast approaching eight billion people, we need to include social justice in the picture of what it really means to be sustainable. Can even half of those eight billion people have an electric car? We know the answer is no. This would not be sustainable. But this is the beauty of the compost toilet; all those humans on the planet could adopt this solution and it is not just sustainable, but regenerative to the soil too. There are many types of compost toilets and it's easy to make one entirely out of recycled materials that doesn't use any water or electricity. These are the sorts of scaleable solutions that are actually sustainable and can connect us with the natural world in a way that isn't exploitative to people, animals and the environment.


Here at Maleny Eco Village, we think a lot about how we can find sustainable solutions for power, water, food, etc. Some of these areas are quite difficult because we aren't yet at a stage where we can plug our mobile phones into a silky oak tree to charge them up. Technologies and energy efficiencies are improving quickly, although the only real way to become sustainable on this planet, is by reducing our collective resource consumption by something to the tune of ninety percent. Composting toilets are the 'low hanging fruit' of this transition to a low-carbon world. Just think about all the infrastructure and servicing required for the huge operation of collecting, pumping and treating sewerage from household toilets, let alone the water use and water pollution. Simple, lo-fi technology can help people all around the world to take responsibility for their own human resource in a safe and sustainable way. This is clearly an environmental issue but it is also a justice issue.


The main barrier in this country to compost toilets is our sanitised culture. Urine and poo are seen as waste when actually they are resources that contain minerals like phosphorous which is needed for healthy soil. In wealthy countries like Australia, waste in all forms is something to be 'outsourced' and this is a reality that is conveniently overlooked. We wheel our two bins out to the kerb and 'away' goes the rubbish just as in the case of flushing our toilets. Our consumption lifestyles come at a cost to poor people, animals and the environment. Until we are honest about this, it will be difficult to make the changes that are needed for real sustainability and social and environmental justice. Until we are honest, it will be difficult to empower ourselves to decentralise waste, water, food systems, power, etc. to create sustainable, localised solutions that don't cost the earth.


So back to the toilet and it's philosophical tendencies. If you carry a bucket of your own excrement to a compost bay, it's hard not to have a down to earth attitude. This practical moment reminds one that we are a species sharing this unique planet with many other species. We are all connected and reliant on the richness and balance of all things - our delicate atmosphere, our finely tuned climate, our soils, water and air as well as all the species that contribute to the continuation of life in all it's forms.


If you are finding it hard to connect to the natural world, make yourself a compost toilet, enjoy sitting on it and doing what humans do, then watch your contribution become rich, black soil over six months and use it a year later on a fruit tree. Maybe feeling connected to all things can be as simple as that.