The Clearing is a vision of the future in the grounds of Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park

Workshop report

27 April 2017

The Clearing

Workshop 2 - Build A Toilet

Our second workshop was Build A Toilet, or 'What to do With the Wee and the Poo'. The aim here was to learn how to build a compost toilet, for the time when the water's been shut off, the reservoirs have burst/run dry (delete as appropriate), and your poo is no longer whisked off down the toilet to Who Knows Where. If we want to stop King Cholera in our survivalist community, this is essential.

The workshop was led by the brilliant Ariana Jordao, from the Centre for Alternative Technology: a long-established eco village in an old quarry in Wales, that’s been off-grid for forty years. Attendees included 14 people - 7 men, 7 women, 1 mobility scooter, no kids.

We started with the facts. We learnt that separating sewage from drinking water was the main cause of improving health in the 20th century. Yet at the same time, this system has broken the link between human waste and agriculture that’s existed for much of human history (the ancient Chinese had a magic recipe, of 25% human waste, 25% animal waste, and 50% straw).

We learnt that the current system mixes really clean water and really dirty human waste; lets all the nutrients escape into the sea; and then means we have to clean the water back to the point where it’s drinkable again. We learnt how much water we need to do this. On average, each person in the UK uses 150L a day, of which 35% is for flushing the loo.

We learnt that, whilst poo is full of pathogens and dangerous, wee is clean. Urine is 95% water, and 5% salts. It’s so clean, you can use it to wash wounds. It’s so rich in nutrients, carpenters used to wee on their hands when they had blisters, to help them heal faster, so they could get back to work. What are these nutrients? NPK: Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium.

Ariana then told us the scariest statistic we’ve heard at The Clearing so far. NPK is the exact same stuff that industrial farming (and deforesting) is leaching out of the soil at human-race threatening speed. The current estimate is that we have just 60 harvests left, globally, until there’s not enough nutrients to grow the food we need. 60. That takes us to 2075, folks. Hold on tight.

WELCOME TO POOTOPIA.

But don’t panic. This being The Clearing, it’s not all doom and gloom. It was at this point that Ariana introduced us to her concept of Pootopia – ‘turning the little bit of you that turns to shit everyday into something useful’. And she passed around our ticket to survival into the 22nd century: humanure.

Humanure is the slightly more snappy name of composted human waste. Ariana showed us some jars from CAT, all of which were different vintages. We opened the jars and took a whiff: we couldn’t believe it – it didn’t smell at all. It looked and felt like soil. It was like magic.

The key is keeping the poo dry – this is what keeps it from smelling. Two things can achieve this: separating the urine, and using soak materials after you poo (fresh saw-dust, leaf mould) to soak up the water in the poo. After six months on its own, without water, the pathogens in the poo have been out-competed by other bugs. After a year, it’s safe to use on trees and non-edible crops.

How could we make our own? We talked about the options: a pit-latrine, a permanent hatch-based system, even a plastic, purpose made composting unit, that would inevitably break in ten years or so and end up in landfill. For The Clearing, we settled on a simple two-chamber, bucket-and-chuck-it, dry composting system. (That looks something like this).

(A word on legality. If you have the permission of the landowner, you’re not going to remove the waste from site, and your structure is less than 2.5m tall, you don’t need planning permission for a compost toilet.)

To make a bucket and chuck-it system:
1) Build some sort of box with a toilet seat above it.
2) Get (at least) two food-grade buckets (the big Mayonnaise containers you find in the bins behind takeaways are a good place to start). 10l tubs if you can find them.

3) Put one of them beneath the seat.
4) Poo in it. Separate the urine (see after lunch)
5) Add a handful of soak each time you poo.
6) Keep doing this until the bucket is full.
7) Once it’s full, put the lid on, and leave it for a year. Start using a new bucket. NOTE: Never handle this material while it’s fresh.
8) Then tip the waste into a compost heap (probably a separate compost heap, as the official advice is to use humanure on trees/fruit trees only, and not on soil destined to grow food).

Congratulations: you have solved the problem of your waste.

What to do with the wee? If you’re growing veg, you can siphon it off into a container, and pour that container straight into your regular compost heap. This will speed up the composting process, and mean you don’t have to turn it to get it working. If you’re not growing, you can either pour the urine around the base of a tree (not the same one each time, as the salts will build up and harm the tree) or build a simple soak-away into the earth.

LUNCH

Lunch was phenomenal. We talked about the disconnect, about people who are mad keen on recycling, but then fly off to Columbia for two weeks. About how we’ve convinced each other that we need to fly off for ‘our winter sun’ every winter. We talked about whether The Clearing was all just nostalgia for utopianism, and whether we thought we'd really make it. And we talked about solutions too. One woman, dressed smartly in posh wellies, announced that she’d heard four years ago about the idea of buying nothing new. So she’d started it. Exceptions were medicines, food, underwear, and anything for the kids that she couldn’t find after three months looking. This is inspirational shit!

BUILDING YOUR OWN

After lunch, we got on with the practicalities. We already had the space for a demonstration toilet at The Clearing (in the back of the shower block). We just needed to install it. We split into groups.

One group installed a urinal and the urine separator in the toilet block. Urine separators are currently made out of plastic, so we also talked about other options for the future (particularly homemade she-wees: here’s how to make your own).

One collected soak materials.

One painted signs and vessels for transferring the urine to the trees.

One sourced ideas for toilet paper including a copy of the Evening Standard (the Sun was unavailable, alas) for the post-industrial years, and sphagnum moss for the future (apparently it’s can absorb five times its own weight, and has mildly anti-bacterial properties). We discussed whether we need toilet paper at all, and how most of the world use water/a bidet instead. But we decided that a bidet in an outdoor toilet in January might be quite unpleasant.

Finally, we all queued up and had a go (in the urinal at least). Some of the more easily amused members of the group made clay poos, for role-playing.

And the fruits of our efforts were added to the compost heap.

Note: We used lots of different words for urine and faeces during the workshop, chiefly poo and wee, also shit and piss. We banned ‘Number 1s’ and ‘Number 2s’ however, as it’s not the nineteenth century, and people have got to face up to the mess we’re making. The first step is being able to call a turd, a turd.