I returned home from a recent trip to find, installed in a corner of the new woodshed, a token of husband Joe’s affection. While the kids and I were soaking up the Florida sun, he had been busy building me a throne. Finally, the composting potty he’d constructed almost a decade ago – which had moved with us twice, then spent the last two years languishing outside the garage – was once more installed in a permanent home, sporting a spanking new toilet lid.
My “waterless closet” is adorable, with its own swinging gate that latches, providing just enough privacy while leaving an unfettered view of treetops and sky. Adding to its allure was that it somehow looked... familiar. Turns out it was pieced together out of lumber repurposed from the kids’ deconstructed playground, which Joe had painstakingly taken apart and transported from our last place. The potty itself is a straightforward affair – nothing but a five-gallon bucket with a wood box constructed around it, and a regular old toilet lid attached by hinges to the box.
When I stroll out there with my coffee in the morning, dog bounding at my heels, sometimes I catch sight of Joe, headed back from feeding the chickens. He beams, and occasionally hollers: It works! He likes to see his handiwork appreciated.
I call it “my” throne because I’m the only one in the family who actually uses this beautiful thing. Some people don’t like doing their business en plein air. I get that.
Pooping in a bucket is not for everyone. For starters, plenty of people don’t have the land needed for a compost heap, or to situate a potty out of sightline of neighbors. Some of you may be disgusted by the mere thought – if that’s you, feel free to skip right past this page.
If, however, you are among the brave of heart, read on. Because when it comes to reducing our impact as humans on the earth, in my mind, cutting out the water-guzzling toilet is the lowest-hanging fruit.
Toilets are the biggest water hogs in our homes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency – not our luxurious showers and baths, nor our life-sustaining faucets. Each flush sends between one and five gallons of potable water spinning into the septic tank or sewer system. Picture dumping 15 office coolers down the toilet – you know, the old school kind with the five-gallon jug on top. That’s what the average American family does every day just by flushing the toilet.
Remember the drought last summer? How the world turned beige and in some towns, an outdoor watering ban meant gardeners had to watch the fruits of their labor wither on the vine? What if enough of us stopped flushing our toilets instead? How much stress would that take off our water supply?
With a composting potty, in lieu of water, you simply toss a few cups of a material like wood shavings into the bucket when you’re done. When the bucket gets full, dump its contents onto the compost heap. Wait a year and you’ve got super-fertile soil, or “humanure,” to use on your garden or trees. The best part is that using a composting potty is not even a sacrifice. Au contraire.
Those few minutes of my day are among my favorite. Instead of jostling for a moment in the bathroom as kids wander in and out, hoping the toilet decides to cooperate without the assistance of a plunger, I step outside and find myself alone. Deliciously alone, my face tilted up to the morning sun. The only sounds are the faraway crow of a pubescent rooster testing out his pipes, the poof of snow dropping from heavy branches.
Full disclosure: I’ve gotten into hot water writing about humanure in the past. One of Dirt’s early covers featured a bearded, hirsute Appalachian Trail hiker seated upon a trailside composting potty, shorts around his ankles. Sort of funny! Right? Wrong. Quite a dressing down I received from a disgusted advertiser. This was not the kind of magazine she’d been led to believe Dirt was going to be. She’d been told (news to me) that Dirt was going to be upscale.
I toned it down, doing my next cover on tea, beautifully photographed, universally palatable. After all, I got it. We had to be able to sell enough advertising to pay the printer. Which meant I had to behave myself, not be so repulsive as to scare off half my readers.
And so, a compromise: no hirsute hiker, no cover, but I’ve got to beat this drum once more, just in case there’s someone out there who’s ready to hear it.