“Compost is more than fertilizer or a healing agent for the soil’s wounds. It is a symbol of continuing life . . . The compost heap is to the organic gardener what the typewriter is to the writer, (and) what the shovel is to the labourer . . .”

J.R. Rodale





Fran and I recycle our kitchen scraps and human manure here at the cabin. We have never had a flush toilet. When I first built the cabin in 1979, the large Toa-throne compost toilet was one of my first major purchases, along with a woodstove and two small solar panels.

Commode to our waterless composting toilet - bruce witzel photo



Diagram of Compost toilet from The Humananure Handbook - written by Joe Jenkins

  Two photos of The Humanure Handbook written by Joe Jenkins

Excerpt form the Humanure Handbook - written by Joseph Jenkins

I share this topic of toiletry with some trepidation, suspecting it may conjure up images of the good, the bad, and the ugly. A persons initial reaction is often to recoil in horror.

However, I ask you this:

Is it not horrible that we think nothing of urinating into 3 gallons of clean drinking water, pipe it away, only to re-collect it and spend millions of dollars to make it drinkable again? Especially considering current droughts and water shortages in many areas of the globe. 

I don’t mean to cast any stones here. I only suggest to take a moment,  and a deep breath  . . .  a breath of fresh ideas . . . now breath out.

Next time reaching to flush and forget, we’d do well to invoke Walt Whitman. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

It is like this image of the cabin . . . in this case we’re burning firewood. I’m certainly not proud of the pollution. Not to minimize it, but life is complicated at times. The world isn’t black  and white.  Humanity does require basic necessities like food, shelter, energy and water . . .


View of the cabin from the lake - bruce witzel photo

Francis and I have been privileged and lucky. As the years have gone by, living in our microcosm of the world, our whole system and infrastructure has changed, evolved and generally improved – almost in direct proportion to the sweat equity we’ve expended and the money we’ve earned and saved.

Not to detract from this down to earth topic at hand – the downside (and integral part of all this) is that Climate Change events are a common occurrence now, throughout the planet.

As I currently write this, the coast of British Columbia is experiencing a massive storm front with unusually high winds and rainfall. 


Vancouver Island storm as seen from our window - bruce witzel photo 

Being quite concerned, earlier today I sent an email to a few friends:

Out the window, we can see the earth move upwards, as trees bend over sideways, their roots straining to hold them upright against the stress of the extreme wind.  It’s a little frightening to witness the earth like this. Fran and I have been here together for 22 years now (though Fran lived in Victoria from  2003 –2009). She says she can’t remember seeing the lake so turbulent before. 

Then a few hours ago it was reported that the city of Courtenay, in the mid island region, has declared a state of emergency due to flooding and  power outages. It seems a week doesn’t go by without this kind of news.

In A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency Thich Nhat Hanh has a chapter entitled The Bells of Mindfulness.



In it he writes;

“ We need a collective awakening. There are among us men and women who are awakened, but it’s not enough; most people are still sleeping. We have constructed a system we can’t control. It imposes itself on us, and we become its slaves and victims.”


Government and societal attitudes can evolve. To give a microbial solution from here in our locale, regional health authorities now require all cabins and dwellings to have legally approved septic and greywater systems.


Site plan - bruce witzel drawing


Cartoon printed in my old union newsletter - bruce witzel photo

Hence, we improved our greywater system which takes care of the soiled water left over after washing. Our toa- throne composting toilet passed inspection with flying colours. The authorities were pleasantly surprised when a litre sample from the toilet was tested by a laboratory to be well below the legal limits in biochemical oxygen demand, suspended solids, and coliform count.


Cross section of compost toilet - drawing by bruce witzel

I won’t  impose upon you the finer details of composting human manure . . . Like how to balance the carbon and nitrogen ratio.  Or emptying the finished compost every few years – I  refer to it as my Gandhian duty.

Suffice to say that we enjoy plenty of scrumptious vegetables “grown in our own.” 


scanned photos - the garden back in the early 90's - Fran Guenette photo 

My Gandhian duty has been fascinating to learn about and I give thanks to Joseph Jenkins, author of The Humanaure Handbook and an international expert on composting human manure.


Joe Jenkins at Health Symposium - Soruce, Cornell University                                                                                                        photo Cornell University web

The Humanure Handbook began as Jenkins’ Master’s Thesis. Like good compost, it then morphed into a popular book that has sold  55,000 copies in three editions over twenty years. All you writers out there will be amazed with that!

The book is philosophical, funny, practical and academically sound.

The Humanure Handbook is a priceless resource for people who want to live a happy and sustainable lifestyle. An excellent newspaper article about Jenkins’ journey (on the road less travelled) is by-lined  with the title Protest Carves Unusual Life Path.


Our toa-throne compost toilet 

The Humanure Handbook holds a hallowed space in our home along with Goodbye to the Flush Toilet.


toilet tax 

 Original Toa-throne brochure

From original toa-throne brochure 1981

To conclude this treatise I’ll take you back to the 19th century French writer Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserable’s and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Hugo earned deep respect as an advocate for social justice and the abolition of the death penalty.

“Science now knows that the most fertilizing and effective manure is the human manure . . . Do you know what these piles of ordure are . . . All this is a flowering field, it is a green grass, it is the mint and thyme and sage . . .  it is the guilded wheat, it is the bread on your table, it is the warm blood in your veins.”


Our garden in the 90's - bruce witzel photo

There’s food for thought . . . Gone, But Not Forgotten


Cheers – Bruce


  1. I have seen many people building their own composting toilets very simply. How would you compare these to the Toa throne? Do you think that it is worth the money to buy one made? Do you have to empty it less or something like that? We are still deciding how to set up quickly with little money, but if it was worth it, once we build the small house we may buy one of these composting toilets. We will have some money once we aren’t paying rent anymore, so we could buy one at that point. We may also put in an outhouse tree bog so as not to use the composting toilet quite so much.
    I have also looked into this multrum system for when the time comes to build the not so tiny house that we will live in permanently. This seems like it may be too complex when a small composting toilet will suffice. Any experience with something like this?

    NOTE FROM BRUCE: Over on this blog, New England Permaculture Homestead, I replied to this comment which began a stream of 8 back and forth comments, regarding the 5 gallon bucket compost toilet method and solar orientation tips in house design. Here’s the link to the post with comments below

  2. Fascinating and thought provoking post. I grew up in rural South Africa where, at first, our toilet was an outside ‘thunder box’ and we carried our water up from the stream. My parents later installed a flushing toilet with septic tank and French drain and pumped water up to the newly built reservoir. The conveniences of modern life – excuse the pun! I look at it now in a different way; as the world population grows and developing nations aspire to the ‘modern’ way of life how do we tell them they can’t have it, we got it wrong and yet we still continue down that path …

    • Thanks Noeline, for sharing your experience of growing up in South Africa. I appreciate acknowledgement that what is often considered “modern” is not necesarily good – especially in these crucial times of an over burdened planet. As you say about this paradox, how do people in richer societies own up to this? This is a thought provoking in itself. And now what? How can we fix this? The 5 gallon bucket does seem a bit out there? But in this moment of history, is it?

      Actually, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the thoughtful responses. Initially I was reluctant to write about it as being too hands on! To talk about human waste, people cringe – and yet the term itself is an oxy-moron.

      The Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “Nothing in the universe is truly profane for those who know how to see!” Of course the powers that be of the Catholic Hierarchy tried to silence him. Health authorities have been similar.

      Attitudes are beginning to change though. In my local region, as of tomorrow Jan. 1, 2015, the metropolis of Vancouver British Columbia will require people to separate their compostables from their garbage (albeit minus their human manure 🙂 ) It is a big step forward.

      Composting and humanuring are an example of what is possible. Each of us can begin to do so many things differently. I hope we will.

  3. Thanks for pointing me to this post. I had missed it. There is lots of great information here Bruce. I enjoyed reading it, especially the cartoon “if we don’t do something soon, we will be known as the effluent society”, how true and sad.

  4. I am so very happy that I came across your blog, how very interesting, I am reading back bit by bit, love the quotes, the references to Thomas Merton, and others. I love the way you write. As regards these toilets, yes I have used them, in Portugal, and also in Ireland, it makes every bit of sense. Long, or not so long ago people used to use humanure all the time. I will be following your blog and telling others about it, thank you very much.

    • Thank you for giving witness to having used and seen the value of composting toilets (in action, so to speak.)
      It’s wonderful you’ve looked around and liked a few of the posts here. I particularly recommend the Brandt series, as I noticed you already liked Land as Sacred Commons…. here’s the link to many more of them

      I enjoyed looking at a few of your posts about your gardening experiences and wisdom – like using the Hawthorne Berries for healthy tea. And I know your grandkids will love your reading them those Christmas stories you have picked for them! My wife and I love being with our grandchildren, even though they live a few hours a way. The walks and story time is the best.

      Seasons greetings to you, and thanks again. 🙂

      • Lovely, thank you for the link also. And do enjoy a lovely Christmas/winter time with your grandchildren.

  5. I honestly didn’t know such a thing was possible. You have amazed me. I am deeply concerned with climate change and as a Californian I had better at least pay attention. I’ve been so proud of my composting–greens, rabbit dung, worms…obviously limited! 🙂 It’s a very serious commitment and I really do admire your focus and dedication. It’s inspiring.

    • Thank you Debra for your commitment and efforts as well, and your openness. This is a serious indeed, and my admiration goes to Joe Jenkins – he has been at this “business” of human manuring for close to 25 years, and even longer if you consider his original development work with composting at his rural property in Pennsylvania. His book has been published in 16 languages, and he has traveled to many developing nations to introduce and teach about this visionary method of public sanitation. He has taken a systematic approach and great care to make sure the science and health aspects of it are sound and verifiable.

  6. We live and learn! I had no idea that such a toilet existed. In the part of the world where I was born, we had regular toilets with septic tanks that were periodically emptied and cleaned by authorized waste disposal firms.

    • That has been standard practice in many rural areas for a long time. It is considered “the tried and true” method. Although it is obviously safer than no sanitation, this out of sight – out of mind mentality has some major problems. For example, it is well known by health officials that the vast majority of these septic systems are not functioning as intended and are harmful to the environment.

      Even though the health code states that a septic field can’t be constructed within 100 feet of any body of water or potable water supply, there are many things that can go wrong with septic systems.The most common is that they aren’t maintained and pumped out regularly. Another major problem inherent in their design, is that the field of pipes that distribute the liquid from the septic tank into the earth is buried quite deep, and therefore it’s “flume” of contaminated water easily penetrates ground water. To compound this, the vast majority of micro-organisms that break down dangerous pathogens, are in the top inch of soil. In that top inch, there are literally millions of these lovely little workers, who rapidly eat up the bad guys… but 1 foot down there is only a few 1000 of them/gram, and hence the bad guys survive, and worse, multiply. This isn’t an exact scientific description, but you get the picture.

      Our improved greywater system that I mention in the article works within this few inches of topsoil. Designed by an environmental engineer, it was he who explained to me this simple biological miracle, known as humus! It’s how compost works too. Millions of these microbes working for free to build a better world! 🙂

      The thing Joe Jenkins’ emphasizes in composting human manure, is what any good farmer or gardener knows – “hot composting” works fastest at breaking down the soil and it kills the pathogens best . . . so this is the safest way.

      As you see I’m passionate about this, Rosaliene! There is such lack understanding and hence much mis-information . . . the “cleanliness is next to godliness” thing. I’ll have to try to moderate my responses.

  7. Bruce,
    This is a beautiful yet difficult post for me to read: beautiful because it reminds me of my roots, of the Humanure book I bought and started to read two years ago, of all the things I’ve learned through Permaculture…it is also inspiring and beautiful to see people like you who walk the talk and saw clearly early enough to build a life around your values. It speaks about your skills and your deep understanding of what it is being human beyond the crap this society has made many of us to swallow…but it is also difficult because it reminds me of the roots I had and betrayed through the choices I made in life, it reminds me of my lack of practical skills, it reminds me that I can’t find a way to compost my own “waste” in a townhouse where I’m trapped to live for a long while and as far as my eyes (and budget) can see in the future…it is difficult because I know that of the around 80% (or more) of people live in cities and cities are by definition unsustainable: they require sewage and pipes and all the grid around…yes, there are many great solutions being developed and tested around the world, but they may be too late too slow, too little as we needed them 20 years ago…
    I’m struggling with my own choices now. And I now that me and my blog represent mainstream: those of us who couldn’t or didn’t choose “the right livelihood” for a myriad of reasons…the good news is that we are awakening from the sleepwalking: as a result, our choices are narrow and close more and more with every day that passes…but I am so stubborn I’ll continue breaking the eggshell and see my world disintegrating around because I need light, to breathe and be alive…

    • I had to take time with your comment Silvia..You articulate so well the struggle. Your stubbornness is good. And your work in the mainstream is invaluable! At times I feel I am a failure because I live on the fringe, and not contributing enough in the “real “world. I am especially moved by what describe as a betrayal of your roots. I think this is universal to our humanity. The regrets we feel at times, for the choices we have made… some good, some bad… and sometimes we had no choice. One thing for sure, from a broken eggshell comes birth. Right now, you’re doing what you can do with what you’ve been given – you give me hope in that . I’m doing the same where I’m at… And even though our choices do narrow every passing day, within our collective diversity is strength.

    • That would be great Priscilla . . . it’s amazing that you mention this because I recently subscribed to a blog, Eco-Sense, by Anne and Gord Baird. They built a cob house and permaculture center about 8 years ago. It is located in the Victoria area (pop. 350,000),at the Southern tip of Vancouver Island , which is the island Fran and I live on.This couple recently got elected to their municipal council! And guess what? They use a composting toilet.

      I’ll give you two links to their blog

      1. This is there most recent post – an overview of a day in their life, today..

      2. This goes way back to 2010. This short post mentions an article about their house in a popular Canadian magazine called Harrowsmith, Click where it says PDF Harrowsmith June 2102 (underlined). This PDF article is a real gem – a full tour of the house and an excellent description of how they built it, with details of cob construction, etc.

      I”m sure your son and future son-in-law will find their experience and the PDF article extremely useful.

      P.s…. a wonderful deep reflection about fear today.

    • The simplest form is a 5 gallon bucket under a commode – you cover it each and every use with sawdust, and then remove it to your compost bin every few days. Very low cost. You can probably find a few buckets for free! This is the system Jenkins advocates for as the simplest and safest. The Humanure link to his website is on the my post and it has U-Tubes, photos etc that demonstrate exactly how it works.This method would work anywhere you can build a compost pile, even in town. Apartment complexes could have a community compost pile, although more realistically the contents would be transported to a nearby compost facility. Many municipalities already do this with kitchen waste. The small commercially available compost toilets are very expensive indeed, and not as user friendly as the 5 gallon bucket method. The compost toilet that we use is a large unit, and would also be expensive. Homebuilt units are possible. Health authorities in cities are quite resistant to this, although less so in more rural areas because some of us have already paved the way! I know of many cases, even a few in cities, where composting human manure is done like this. As you said in the beginning – it is brilliant, isn’t it?

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