Composting toilets are probably the world's least glamorous product. What else can you say about a hefty, box-like receptacle that sits in your bathroom and processes a month's worth of human waste right next to the shower?
But if you own a piece of cottage country, you've got a responsibility to steward it with a light touch. That's what composting toilets help to accomplish. After 40 years of first-hand experiences in cottage country – both loving it and fearing for its future – I'm here to boost the humble, much-maligned composting toilet. I'm convinced no other piece of household technology offers greater promise for keeping cottage country green, and this is true in not just one way, but two.
I'm the world's least likely spokesperson for composting toilets. Revolting childhood experiences with two ill-designed composting toilets have burned ugly images into my mind. Leaks, flies and false manufacturer claims for an odourless composting process made me loathe the composting toilet in our family cottage north of Parry Sound. But as it turns out, the realities of a growing number of flush toilets in cottage country is pretty ugly, too. This fact has kept me from giving up on composting toilets altogether, and it's a good thing. While development pressures in cottage country have increased over the last few decades, composting toilets have become a lot better in ways that might surprise you.
When a kitchen fire destroyed the Manitoulin Island cottage of Mike and Alice Ogden in June 2005, they decided to rebuild in a way that blended appropriately with the lakeside setting of their property, while also allowing the new cottage to become a year-round retirement home. They built small (about 700 square feet), and they opted for a composting toilet because of two very specific concerns.
"Our old cottage had a flush toilet that emptied into a primitive cesspool, and we worried how continued use of this system with the new place would affect the water quality of our lake,'' explains Mike.
No matter how little water a flush toilet uses, it still pollutes water. Lots of it over the course of a year. And if the waste system designed to treat toilet water malfunctions in any way, the quality of surrounding lakes and rivers is vulnerable. Composting toilets, on the other hand, don't produce dirty water, so they eliminate all risks of contamination. Most basic, self-contained models include a heated, ventilated chamber directly below the toilet seat. Waste is stored, dried and aerated there with a roof-mounted vent drawing odours outdoors. The result is harmless, soil-like compost that's removed from a sliding tray every six to 12 months.
Larger composting toilet systems include a remote composting chamber that's more suited to year-round use. And unlike my loathsome childhood experiences, a number of modern composting toilets actually perform like they're supposed to.
Mike and Alice have been using a Swedish-made Mulltoa 60 for the last two years, and they're very pleased with its performance.
"It's worked perfectly," Mike says. "There's been no odour, no leakage and nothing to threaten the lake."
Another drawback of flush toilets in cottage country is the disruption involved in creating a traditional septic system to treat all the polluted water they create.