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Our steaming pile of...

Our compost pile in formation

Compost Toilet Q&A

One of the most common questions we get asked when we tell people what we do is, “Is it gross?”

The answer is, “Surprisingly not!”

Come with us on a tour of our compost pile as we answer that and other questions.

Founder Paul inviting you into our first compost toilet
Welcome to our compost toilet

We’ve all heard or seen the words feces, dung, excrement, biologic matter, stool. We know what they mean, but let's cut the crap and call it what it is: poop. We all do it, it’s essential to Toilet Equity and sure, it may be gross, it may be messy, but it’s the most natural part of life and one of the only things most living species have in common. So let’s embrace it and dive right in.

Back in September of 2022, when our project was a tiny little speck in the grand scheme of all we've accomplished in this short year, we wrote a blog about how we intended to compost the poop and pee collected in our toilets (please go give it a read if you haven’t already!). Our composting method is based on the Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins and since we now have functioning toilets and have collected a plethora of poop, we want to revisit and show you how this process is working in real time. We also want to address many of the questions and concerns that have been brought to our attention by our donors, toilet users, community sponsors, and just people who stumble across our non-profit and think, “What the heck?” Hopefully by the end of this blog you’ll learn a little, care more about our mission, and feel comfortable with candid conversation about the taboo topic of toileting.

Paul scooping compost out of the container next to the toilet seat
Add a scoop of sawdust after you make your deposit

Q: How exactly does this all work?

The first part of this process takes place inside the TE toilets themselves. Our toilet structures have a receptacle bin underneath the toilet seat where a typical port-a-potty would have the vat of chemicals for the sewage to go into. Instead of this murky blue chemical soup, our toilets mix the deposits with sawdust to get ready for the composting process.

It’s important to note that our toilets are not Composting Toilets, since the composting process takes place at a separate location. However, the start of the process takes place right after our users make their deposit into our collection receptacle. From there users are instructed to dump a scoop of sawdust into the toilet to cover their deposit. This helps reduce odors. It’s also a rich carbon additive that balances the nitrogen (one of the biggest nutrient components in feces and urine) and absorbs excess liquid.

Q: Do I add sawdust if I use the urinal?

Yes, but you add it to the toilet where the receptacle is. Our volunteers pour water through the urinal to clean it, but sawdust would gum it up. The urinal hose goes straight into the receptacle, so throwing in sawdust into the main part of the toilet neutralizes any odor, even when you use the urinal.

Q: When I’m in a public toilet, I try to get in and out while touching as little as possible. What happens if I don’t add the sawdust?

At our current toilets, our volunteers round on the toilet each day. They add sawdust if it looks like the receptacle needs it. They’re also there daily to clean, so we try to make it as pleasant an experience for you as possible!

A truck bed full of bags of sawdust
Bringing in a new donation of sawdust

Q: So, some poor soul has to dump out a bucket of poop?

Yes, our volunteers are wonderful! And, it’s not as bad as it initially sounds. The sawdust changes the consistency of everything, removes most of the moisture, and makes it much less gross than you’d think.

Q: How often do the toilets need to be cleaned?

It’s on a case by case basis as far as when each receptacle gets full, but our volunteers check on the toilets daily! Daily cleaning tasks include spraying disinfectant on the lock, hand sanitizer dispenser, doorknobs, urinal and toilet seat. Our volunteers also pour water down the urinal to wash out any residue, shake down the toilet receptacle, and replace toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and sawdust as needed.

Once a receptacle is nearly full, one of our dedicated volunteers collects the receptacle and replaces it with a clean, empty one.

Volunteer Jada giving a gloved thumbs up as she cleans the toilet
Our volunteer Jada showing off her PPE

Q: Ew. How do they safely collect these? Do they have PPE?

Great question! Our volunteers have found the best way to remove the receptacles is while wearing gloves and when they are about 80% full to reduce the risk of coming into contact with the materials. Our volunteers remove the receptacle from the box below the toilet seat and immediately close the receptacle with a lid. Some of our volunteers wear masks, while others feel comfortable going without. There is no risk of disease transmission, since our volunteers never come into contact with the deposits themselves; fecal diseases are not transmitted through the air, but rather ingestion.

If our volunteers have a vehicle like a truck where the receptacle can be placed outside the cab, they opt for that. If they have an enclosed vehicle, they lay down a tarp over their trunk floor and place the sealed receptacle on top of the tarp. The outside of the containers are clean, but this is an extra protectant in case containers were to tip or an unforeseen event were to occur during transportation.

Q: How is this not gross?

Considering something as gross is largely perspective, but our compost toilet option is not nearly as gross as other toileting options like using a chemical port-a-potty, cleaning out a groover, or seeing human feces in the streets on a daily basis. The sawdust largely controls odor and soaks up any excess moisture, making transporting and emptying the receptacle an easy process with very little extra gunk. Once the D.U.M.P.S. (Deposits Uniformly Mixed in the Presence of Sawdust) are added to the compost pile, enough straw is added to completely cover and insulate it as it decomposes, so you never see any of the poop during this process. It may be considered gross when we are all so used to flushing and walking away, but in terms of public toileting, it's a well-liked option.

An addition to the compost pile: mostly sawdust and toilet paper
"Not too gnar," as Paul put it

Q: Where do you dump the poop?

Our compost site is located on our founder’s property until we gain enough deposits and community support to find another location. Currently, we have a small test pile of about 2 feet tall, but once we place more toilets our piles will grow to be at least a cubic meter for optimal composting conditions.

Our founder, Paul, takes on the job of dumping the receptacles and maintaining the compost pile.

Q: What kind of maintenance does the pile require?

Our founder, Paul, currently takes on the job of dumping the receptacles and maintaining the compost pile. After he adds the contents of the receptacles, Paul adds a generous amount of sawdust and mixes it together with a pitchfork. Then he encases the pile with an additional layer of straw for insulation.

There, our compost pile is a happy home for thermophilic bacteria, who go to work eating the D.U.M.P.S. and turning them into compost. These thermophilic bacteria give off heat, warming our pile. Once the pile is at least one cubic meter in size, it will be able to get so warm (140*F/60*C) that it will kill any human pathogens. On a regular basis, Paul checks the temperature and adds more straw accordingly. He can also add more sawdust if the pile is giving off any odors; that’s a sign the pile needs more carbon to balance the nitrogen in the poop.

Q: How long does it take for the compost process to be finished?

Since it’s a process based on bacteria generating an internal temperature, the time frame can vary based on the contents of the pile and the outside temperature, but with a cubic meter pile it typically takes about a year for the compost to be finished and usable.

Add/don't add sign from inside our toilet
A balance of equity for all and safety for our volunteers

Q: What if something other than human waste, toilet paper or sawdust is put in the toilet? Does that affect the composting process?

Once the compost reaches its internal temperature of 140°F and cools back to the outdoor temperature, we will sift through the pile and collect plastics, clothing, loose change, or any other materials that may have found their way into our toilet receptacles. These items do not affect the composting process, they just won’t break down and so will need to be removed and disposed of in the garbage.

In the name of equity for all, we do encourage users to add used menstrual products to our toilets. We don’t provide a trash can in our toilets, and we don’t think it’s fair to ask people who menstruate to carry used products to a separate site to dispose of them. The internal temperatures of our compost pile will kill any potential pathogens, and we can simply sift out any parts of those products that don’t decompose in the compost process.

Q: Aren’t there diseases from humans that we need to worry about?

This is a common question, and for good reason. Although poop contains a plethora of human diseases, we are not worried about transmission at any stage of this process because our volunteers use proper PPE to avoid contact with the deposits. Additionally, potential diseases would be transmitted through ingestion, and no one is putting themselves in that position.

In the composting process, thermophilic bacteria kill off any fecal or other diseases by raising the temperature to an unsustainable level of heat for any viruses or diseases to survive in. The process is very safe and it’s virtually impossible to contract any disease through composting human poop.

Compost thermometer showing 110 degrees F
At only 2' high, our pile is already steaming

Q: I’ve used cow manure before but the idea of using human poop freaks me out. How are they different?

Cow manure has been around for ages as an additive to many home gardens and is a helpful resource in agricultural fields. The only difference is the species producing the poop. Otherwise, the process for making manure or compost is exactly the same!

Q: What will you do with the finished compost product?

We have a variety of ideas for ways we can use our final product! First and foremost, we’d like to use it as a way to give back to our community either by donating it to our toilet users if they have a need for it, or offering it to our donors and volunteers. Our compost could be used in community and residential gardens or in a greater agricultural setting such as produce farms, wineries or flower gardens. Another option would be utilizing it for erosion control, stormwater management, soil remediation, and even landscaping and gardens in our valley. If you have any ideas, or would like to learn how you can obtain our final product, please contact us!

3' by 3' compost pile, encased by fencing
We added more netting around the top as our pile grew taller

Now, the contrasting question and perspective to this project and our mission is generally, “Why don’t you just continue using the standard plastic port-a-potties?”

We have a few reasons. To start, our model and toilet design is much more environmentally friendly since we reduce virtually all waste, both by composting our users’ deposits and by avoiding the water waste and chemicals that traditional port-a-potties need to function. We can also place our toilets in areas that can’t be accessed by a pump truck, allowing greater toilet access in rural areas and along the Colorado River, which greatly decreases the amount of fecal contamination in our waterways. Additionally, since we utilize sawdust to absorb moisture and neutralize odors, our toilets don’t smell as bad or attract nearly as many flies and bugs as regular port-a-potties do.

We understand that the look of a standard plastic port-a-potty has a greater association with a toilet than our models do. However, we like that our version is more customizable to what the host and users want out of a toilet. With this being said, we are working on a design that converts the standard plastic port-a-potty into a compost toilet for locations where the host wants it to look more like a public toilet.

Q: If biologic toilets are better than standard port-a-potties, why aren’t they everywhere?

A majority of this answer has to do with how we have evolved as a society to be instantly gratified with convenience over quality. Standard port-a-potties are easier to use on a large scale such as at concerts or sporting events, and they don’t need to be tended to daily. There is definitely a use for them, but as our project gains more traction, we hope we can change the way people view public toileting solutions and create equitable toilet access for those without, in service of community and environmental health.

If you want to see our toilets in person and maybe try them for yourself you can find them at the Unitarian Universalist Church located on Ouray and 5th Street, and at First Christian Church next to Sherwood Park!

We hope this blog post has been educational, eye opening, and encouraging for you to see how our project works and why it matters. We give a S.H.I.T. (Safe, Healthy, Innovative Toilets) and we hope you do too!

Receptacle contents added to the compost pile
We give a S.H.I.T. and hope you do too!

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