The Humanure Handbook inspired me to create a composting toilet system for our house in Charagua, both to demonstrate to Bolivians and Low German Mennonites (LGM) how easy it is; and so we use less water and create a resource instead of waste. The Humanure Handbook made it easy and also gave me the confidence to make the system and manage it properly. There are three things that a composting toilet system needs: “1) the toilet receptacle; 2) cover materials; 3) a compost bin system” (172). I located a continuous supply of sawdust from a local carpenter for cover material. I’ve also been tearing up old newspaper into strips for additional cover material. I might also need to buy some straw at some point, but the sawdust and newspaper should be sufficient for now.
The biggest obstacle was building the actual toilet. The Humanure Handbook has some simple and cheap plans that I was going to use, but I didn’t have the building materials or buckets. First I found four identical buckets (with lids!!) at an old colony store for 40 bolivianos (almost $6). As I was making plans for how much wood I needed, my wife was hit by a stroke of genius. We have some old wicker chairs sitting around that we don’t use much and are falling apart some. Rather than spend money on brand new materials I could use what we already have around the house to make a frame for the bucket. We also had some scrap wood lying around to help support the frame and attach the seat.
The toilet receptacle is very basic. It’s just a bucket with something to sit on. In order to make it more comfortable, enjoyable and pleasing to the eye, it’s nice to build some sort of box or chair around the bucket. You could also buy toilet seats that fit standard five-gallon buckets online or at a camping store. I simply cut the wicker seat out of the chair for the bucket. Then attached a piece of plywood to the back for support and a board across the back to attach the toilet seat.
The finished toilet is both aesthetically pleasing, comfortable and highly functional. We keep a bucket of sawdust next to the toilet to cover after every use. Multiple buckets means we don’t have to empty the buckets into the compost bin system as often. Joseph Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook, claims that using two buckets for a family of four he only has to empty it once a week. Perhaps his family doesn’t go as much as we do or uses less sawdust, on the other hand maybe we go more than most (maybe I drink too much coffee). Either way we fill up one bucket in about a day and a half, which means using two buckets we will have to empty them at least twice a week. Regardless, this is not a lot of work, perhaps five minutes two to three times a week, for the reward of rich compost to grow some delicious vegetables and the satisfaction of knowing you are not pooping in your drinking water anymore.
The third and final component, the compost bin system, I built in a field by our house a good distance away from our living space. It’s more inconvenient, but might keep the ubiquitous dogs here out of yard when adding our food scraps. Again, using scrap wood that we had lying around, I measured two 5′ X 5′ squares and buried the posts so they would all be 4′ high. Since concrete continues to be scarce and expensive in Bolivia, I simply packed the dirt into the holes to secure the posts. Then attached chicken wire around the posts, leaving the front panel of wire as a door that can be opened when the compost is ready to use. It will take a while to fill this bin and for it to settle (compost loses half its volume in the process of composting). In that time I will build a second bin to fill while the first bin ages for a year. My compost bin system is simpler than the “Humanure Hacienda” design in the book, but perfectly functional.
The thing I really learned from thinking about and building this system is that it’s a lot easier than you think. The Humanure Handbook debunks a lot of the myths about composting toilets and humanure. It also helps to see the things you have around your house as resources and materials, instead of first thinking of buying new materials. It’s amazing how hard it is to overcome this mentality since the consumer religion has taught this way of thinking to us since birth.