Composting loos can help us beat Day Zero

The water crisis is forcing Capetonians to become more intimately acquainted with the contents of their loos.

The water crisis is forcing Capetonians to become more intimately acquainted with the contents of their loos, and many are asking whether flushing with water still makes sense. LAUREN O’ CONNOR-MAY lifts the lid on the composting toilet.

If Day Zero hits, we might not be able to generate enough grey water to flush the toilet often enough. Our family, for one, certainly wouldn’t, since we use most of our grey water on the vegetable garden.

The problem extends beyond the bathroom: there are fears that if the sewage stops flowing, it could cause a build-up of methane in the sewer pipes, making for an explosive and particularly messy scenario. So how does one avoid this?

Some have suggested using seawater, but the City has warned against this. Xanthea Limberg, mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services; and energy, says salt water would make sewage treatment difficult, corrode the concrete pipes and cause environmental problems.

While the City is prepared in the event of Day Zero, she says, to allow “limited” use of salt water for flushing to stop sewer blockages or overflows making people sick, and might also “inject” sea, storm, river or dam water at strategic points in the system, these steps would be controlled by the City and “we do not recommend the large-scale household-level flushing of toilets with sea water”.

But that doesn’t solve my family’s potential Day Zero problem – keeping a garden and a toilet running on less than 25 litres of grey water a day. I am loathe to give up the garden because the price of vegetables is likely to shoot up as less water gets to the farms.

So the only option left for us was a composting toilet – except it’s not pretty, nor cheap.

The idea of an outhouse or uninstalling my existing toilet seemed excessive and expensive, and making a composting toilet work on a budget seemed nearly impossible until my colleague spotted an interesting idea on Facebook.

Someone had hung a plastic bag on the inside of their toilet bowl and included a captioned “how to”. The gist of the “how to” was:

Clear the toilet of as much water as possible.

Hang a plastic bag inside the toilet bowl.

Put a decent layer of drying agent (sawdust or dried grass clippings or leaves) at the bottom of the bag.

Cover your business with a layer of drying agent after every use.

Hmm, that could work. But what about the smell? Well, if done correctly, the smell should not linger any longer than it ordinarily would.

I discovered this when I came across composting toilets at Seed, which is based at Rocklands Primary School in Mitchell’s Plain, and later at Soil for Life, in Constantia.

At both locations, I was blissfully unaware of how close I was to other people’s decomposing excrement, until someone pointed it out.

The trick is the drying agent, which absorbs the moisture and smell and assists with decomposition.

When we eventually bit the bullet and tried it at home, we found that the grey water gave off more of a pong than the bag in the toilet.

But what do you do with the bag when it’s full? The Facebook “how-to” recommended throwing it in the bin. But I emptied it in a specially made compost bin, separate from the one we already throw our kitchen waste into.

Once full, it is supposed to sit undisturbed for a year to “cure”. This means that the heat generated by the decomposition kills any harmful bacteria.

The emptying sounded simple enough, until I tried it. I quickly discovered that the thin, pretty, lemon-scented, bin bags were a bad idea – even when double bagged. I quickly switched to a heavier duty, old-fashion black bag. Much less mess. But this is just a temporary solution. The bags fill up quickly, I found, and once discarded, will pile up in a landfill.

The longer-term plan is to get a compact, composting loo – options abound online – or maybe someone will come up with a biodegradable solution that will fit in the toilet.

The one consolation in all of this humanure experimenting was discovering that even a smallish-sized bin takes several months to fill up.

My main concern going into this was having a yard full of buckets of decomposing poop. However, a bit of internet research showed that the decomposing poo shrinks with time so it takes up less space as the months go by.

But if having even one small humanure bucket hanging around doesn’t tickle your fancy, worry not, because bulk collections may well become a reality.

This toileting idea has apparently become so popular that at least one manufacturer posted on- line that they are in discussions with “waste disposal companies to provide services to those who are unable to dispose of or compost their filled buckets”.

So, clever entrepreneurs have found a way to make money off our poo. And eco-loo companies are not the only ones to have cottoned-on to the possible money-making opportunity.

While browsing for sawdust, the manager at the wood-machining company I came across, whispered to me that they were considering making their own range of eco-loos after their usually unpopular sawdust by-product was suddenly being snapped up as fast as they could make it.

In fact, when I arrived at the factory and tried to discreetly state my business, the said manager blew my cover by yelling to his colleague at the back: “Oy! Another one!”

So after several days of trying this unconventional approach to ablution I found that:

My children are surprisingly open-minded about the idea.

Four 20kg bags of sawdust, while cheap, take up a lot of space (thankfully my industrious eldest daughter threw a cover over them and uses them as a couch).

And, as a colleague teasingly pointed out, her cat’s kitty litter is more expensive than ours.