Wendell Berry once said if you eat, you’re involved. He was talking about agriculture, but if you ask me, he really meant humanure. Getting your outputs sorted is a big and necessary task. For us, that meant designing and implementing a composting toilet system based on wheelie bins.
I thought I’d better give out the details of our compost toilet bin system, as we’re receiving many emails asking for the specifics of how the system fits together. It’s a simple design, but one that we’re very happy with. Here’s how the bins work:
The whole point of having these bins as our composting toilet system was to remove the need to handle the humanure until it had gone through its composting process and was safe to handle. We’re fine with handling open buckets of our own family’s sawdust-covered poo within a small humanure toilet system, but when we have a course here at Milkwood we can have up to 70 people on the farm each day. And though I value their presence (and their poo) I prefer not to process their collective contributions while they’re fresh, if i can avoid it.
So the bins are our solution. When one fills up, you roll it out, stand it aside in the sun, roll another empty in, lock it into place and continue on. No bucket handling, no processing. And a year later, each full bin has transformed into a rich, safe humus, ready to be added to the rootzone of our food forest trees. We label each full bin so we have a full inventory of when each lot of humanure will be ready to use.
The bins we’re using are normal 200 litre wheelie bins, used for household rubbish in Australia. We add a vent at the top of the back panel, a tap outlet at the bottom of the back panel, and a grate inside the bin. Each bin takes about 1 hour to prepare all up, and are best done as a batch. Once a bin is adapted, you’ve got it adapted for life, so it’s a worthy time investment.
Each compost toilet bin has a home-made grate in them which sits about 5cm off the bottom of the bin. This grate provides a permeable barrier between the solids and woodchips coming into the bin, and the bottom of the bin reservoir. Any liquid (and there isn’t much, as the woodchips absorb most of it) moves through this grate and fills the bottom of the bin, and then drains out the bottom through the tap.
The grates were made by cutting a piece of galvanised steel mesh to size, and then adding a polyethylene surround (19mm low density irrigation pipe) to the mesh and wiring it on. A shadecloth cover is then tied to the grate to filter finer particles. The finished grate is wired to 4 bar chairs (the little plastic cones that support rebar while concrete is being poured), which raise it off the bottom of the bin. The completed grate can then be placed inside the bin, and can be removed easily when the humanure is used at the end of it’s composting cycle.
The tap is very basic (tank flange – gate valve – snap on hose fitting) , and it’s construction is pretty obvious. The only hard part is climbing into the bin to attach the flange. We place a screen of shadecloth over the inlet pipe, so solids don’t stop up the tap. The tap mechanism is very important as it prevents the bin from flooding with liquid. Flooding the bin would drastically increase it’s weight and will make the bin anaerobic, which stinks and looses lots of nitrogen.
When the bin is in use, the tap is then attached to a leachate hose (and turned on) which drains the liquids to a gravel-filled leachate pit (not dissimilar to the idea of a septic overflow, except there is much less liquid in this system). We planted twisted willows on our leachate pit (which are thriving with the extra nutrient) to supply our rocket powered shower down the hill with stickwood and for carbon rich autumn leaves for our compost. Every output can be an input.
Once the bin is in processing mode (ie full, and sitting in the sun) the tap is closed. With the internal temperature of the bin getting up to 70ºc during processing, any liquid in the bottom will evaporate back into the bin’s contents.
The vent is at the top of the back panel of the bin. It’s a simple rainwater tank overflow screen riveted to gutter outlet (sourced from the local hardware), rivieted into a hole in the panel. The outside edge of this vent attaches to the chimney which draws air up and out of the bin. The suck is created by the heat generated by the morning sun hitting the black metal chimney and this additional airflow means that the toilet cubicle always smells pleasant, as any odours in the bin are being sucked away.
This airflow also dries out the bin’s contents a little bit, which is great. And the mesh on the vent means no flies get into the bin from inside the chimney.
We’ve started adding rock dusts to the bucket of woodchips provided in the toilet cubicles. These will help incrementally re-mineralise our land over time, as the humanure gets used around Milkwood. The rock dusts also create a more interesting humus makeup for the microbiology which will move into the humanure in time.
After the bin has been removed for about a month we also throw a handful of worm castings (full of worms and worm eggs) into the bin to increase the diversity of microbes and to start a population of worms breeding. High rise living for worms!!
We’ve hit on using metal plant tags, wired to each bin as it comes ‘out of service’, so we can track which bins are what ‘vintage’. We write the month and the year on the tag, so we know not to use that bin’s humanure for at least 1 year.
These compost toilets are proving a marvelous solution to all the bits we can’t feed to the chickens, or don’t want to add to a compost heap because of inquisitive dogs: chicken bones, dead rats, oversupplies of orange peel and so on. It’s good to have a nearby and useful place to put these things, rather than having to bury them and take them out of our active nutrient cycles.
We’re fairly sure we’ve calculated how many days it takes to fill a wheelie bin under normal usage: 150 person days – so one person with a normal digestion would take about 150 days to fill a single bin by themselves (and 6 people would take 25 days to fill a single bin, and so on). Using this rough guide we can now plan ahead for when we need to modify more bins. It will be good in the second year of this system, when we start to re-use the cleaned bins, but we ain’t there yet!
So that’s that. 5 months in and we’re still really happy with this compost toilet system for all sorts of reasons (though I’m sure there’s still room for improvement). If you are completely confused at this point, hop over to our description of our composting toilet system, or have a look at Jenkins’ Humanure website. You’ll get the gist.
You might also like to read:
- More of our posts about humanure
- How to build a worm tower
- Our slightly silly ‘how to make compost’ videos
Thanks for sharing more info about your set-up 🙂
I’m going to be doing something similar. Like this but crossed with the Ecowater Net-Drum set-up as per these two pdfs:
Loads more good composting toilet info at:
Thanks Josef – great resources.
brilliant stuff because this is something I’m looking for a ‘how to’ kinda answer. My only thought is securing them re the weather – would NOT be a fun cleanup if they got blown over etc in wind/storm. I realise if you knew the storm was coming you’d take care of that but sometimes things are unpredictable and/or you’re not home…
keen to see your thoughts on securing the wheelie bins.
Hi Kristy, once these bins are full they’re over 40kg in weight, so they’re at no real risk of blowing over…
Hey guys, really love what you are doing here! What are your thoughts on the multiplication factor? You’ve figured out its takes one person approx 150 days to fill a bin, so 2.5 bins a year, then times say 100 peeps that about 250 bins of poo a year and so on. Is there a point where you just don’t need that much manure? I hope there isn’t but just wondering what you think 🙂 Keep up the innovation, its the inspiration a lot of us are looking for.
Well I’m not sure you could ever have *too* much nutrient of that type in a poorly favored area like ours… but i suppose in theory. We’re forever waiting for the next bin to be ready because we’ve got so many areas we want to use the manure to establish plantings, so no probs yet! 🙂
Amazing setup, well organized, engineered, and built. I’m going to start a similar system today, but I have one main question: Is the fluid drain at the bottom 100% necessary? I can imagine it will be a bit heavier with the fluid, but I have these thoughts: 1. I want to make the system somewhat portable, so having to build a leachate pit wouldn’t be ideal. 2. I would like to keep the humanure completely contained in the composting process, and 3. Everything in my neck of the woods is frozen for 5 months of the year so it wouldn’t… Read more »
“Is there a point where you just don’t need that much manure?” Most soil that grows plants is happy with as much compost you can give it, but I guess there is a limit eventually, or in urban spaces without much growing land at all. If you can’t use it in your immediate land, you might want to sneak it out and dump it in a friendly forest or something (after it’s safely decomposed, of course)? We humans put ourselves at the top of a huge food chain, using more and more of the world’s productive land every year to… Read more »
In our situation, i can’t see us even not needing manure for tree plantings – but ask me again in 20 yrs 🙂 – re emptying the bins, we’ve now done many rounds of emptying – after 9 months, you’re basically left with a woody compost of sorts. We’re now emptying the bins after 9 months into our humanure hacienda for an extra stage of composting action that is in contact with microbes and worms etc, after which it’s worm-rich humus and ready to be useful planting medium for tree pantings. It’s all working well…
Are you sure that it takes only one person to fill a wheelie bin in 150 days?
That seems like a lot. We are trying to find a system which works and this looks great and thanks for an excellent detailed explanation.
Yeah we’re pretty sure, it’s hard to be exact but we based it on how long it took us all to fill one, then multiplied that time by the number of people to get how long it would take a single person to fill one? Also the fact that its black in there adds hugely to the timeframe because people don’t chuck in masses of sawdust to cover their poo, b/c they can’t really see it… In a small bucket system it’s the other way around… The evidence is too close and people (our guests, anyway) tend to add far… Read more »
Thanks so much for your awesome detailed build instructions and photos!! About to attach one of these to my little bush hut. Just wondering how you keep the flies from entering the bin (and poo) through the open lid? I cant figure out a way to make it fly-tight myself… or dont you bother? Any fly issues? Appreciate any advice!!
We do our best to screen the toilet building, keep the door closed and the lid closed.
The vent pipes at the back of the building keep the air flowing in through the toilet seat and out through the vent. This means the smells emanate from the top of the vent pipe rather than the toilet seat so that the flies are attracted to the top of the vent pipe rather than the toilet. You could make this more effective by adding a small extractor fan.
We want to try this in a cool, shady location (Seattle, US northwest). My concerns:
1. Without your hot sun, how to reach temperatures where the microbes can start their work (mesophilic at 21C / 70F — thermophilic at 40C / 104F)
2. Heavy rainfall most of the year here; we can’t drain leachate to a trench as you do, because the rain runoff would wash it downhill to neighbors.
We’d appreciate any thoughts that anyone has on this. nokomis at sonic net.
Hi Nokomis, 1. Although thermophilic composting would be great to achieve, our system ensures that human pathogens are rendered innocuous by using TIME. Its the fact that the material is kept in the bins for at least 9 months that makes it safe. Once the 9 months are up we tip the bins into a great big pile to homogenise and enliven with soil microorganisms. I don’t think it matters that your material does not “compost” in the bin, as long as it in not disturbed or at least 9 months, to break the human pathogen life cycle. 2. Our… Read more »
Our purpose is to dispose of feces on site (and all urine together with it, no diverting). For leachate, an absorbtion trench like yours is not possible for us. So – to put it briefly – if we managed to dry out the liquid from the leachate, leaving only dry crystals/residue, would that dry residue still be considered dangerous?
We do this with our lovable loo system and it works brilliantly, so if yr talking domestic scale, look at that design? https://www.milkwood.net/2012/08/17/building-a-jenkins-style-lovable-loo/
If you’re talking community scale, you either need to accept you’ll be emptying buckets 3 times a day (we did that for a few years, not a huge problem, tho tasking the job to volunteers didnt go so well), or figure out a ‘deep litter’ system for wheelie bins or whatever that deals with the extra liquid load?
Can you please post some photos of what it looks like inside.
i.e how you attach a seat to the bin without gaps.
there’s an image in this blogpost: https://www.milkwood.net/2010/11/23/the-most-lovable-loo-in-the-west/ – basically the bins lip is hard up against a box (so that seals) and then there’s a lid cut into that box. the box is hinged on one side inside the toilet room so you can raise it up 45 degreesget the bin in and out
Hi, enjoy reading of your projects. Re comment on concern for odor elimination, how about trying placing charcoal (which would seem easy enough to get or make) to do that. Thanks for sharing your practical experiences.JS
Thanks for posting this. I was looking for information on the use of a wheelie bin as a general compost bin and this is one of the most practical and well informed pieces I have come across. I might just add that while a composting toilet is too confronting for my partner we negotiated and the males of the house pee in 2L plastic milk bottles. The bottles are neatly hidden away in a cupboard in the bathroom. The pee is then dispersed in deep mulch basins and diluted and poured around our suburban block. While it not only ensures… Read more »
Hi Milkwood, so happy to find this is an Aussie site.
Looks lovely there
Questions, if I may:
Are you still happy and has it all worked out as you hoped on your farm?
Anything you would never attempt again or have learnt to do a different way next time?
What would be your best money saving tip you could impart?
What were your backgrounds before you embarked on your Milkwood adventure?
I’m with Kat! Thank you Milkwood, for sharing this wonderful info!
1) Can we see photos of the “seat to bin interface”? ie; do the bins roll in flush (or tight) right up against the sitting apparatus?
2) What would you advise doing DIFFERENTLY four years down the road?
Thank you so much!!!
Where do you get the tap fitting that goes on the bottom of the bin? Are they just regular water tank fittings?
yep they’re irrigation fittings – next build i would use a simpler tap with a wider pipe, but this was good in the sense that it allowed us to connect a regular garden hose to the outlet –
Cool, thanks I’m going to try and build one. Why would you use a wider pipe? Does it get clogged? Yeah was thinking a ball valve for the tap, might be less of a pain if needed to unblock.
Also you said you riveted the vent pipe to the bin mesh screen fitting – how do you take the bin out when it is full?
Thanks in advance. 🙂
Are these loos approved by your local council? I have built a modified one and am now having to explain it to council.
Nope we didn’t try to get them approved, though I’ve been told that since they’re similar in essence to many approved systems it wouldnt be a nightmare – we were working off the ask for forgiveness rather than permission principle…
how well are the council accepting it?
every document i can find wants you to buy one of the accredited commercial systems and thats not what i want to do.
i’m tempted to go with Kristen and just build one (we are on 100 acres 3ks down a dirt road 20 min from town) but my husband is a stickler for the rules and wants me to get approval from the council (Great Lakes) but i cant find anything on their site to show that they even consider this kind of loo
I live in North Queensland, the dry tropics and do not know about council regulations so just some broad questions. Can you mix green manure with humanure and other animal manures? Pig manure would be very much like humanure with pathogens so that might not be successful nor safe. Can you use mushroom compost or coir, or a mixture of both, instead of wood shavings?
green manure is a term usually used for a plant mix that adds nutrients to the soil, so isn’t manure as such. Pig manure can be composted just like humanure, its all about the timeframes required to break the potential pathogen cycles . The idea of the wood shavings is to increase the overall carbon content of the bin (so mushroom compost wouldn’t be suitable), so you could use leaf litter, or woodships, or coir if you like, but coir would take extra long to break down.
Thank you for your speedy reply.
Nice way of composting Kirsten.Thanks for explaining it well.I live in Brisbane.I owned a company name Direct Compost.My company offers products like compost bins,compottop,metal stakes,etc.Stuff we need for composting.Thanks again for your great ideas.
[…] of call was to do some research. As followers of milkwoods blog we remembered their post on their composting toilet and used that as the basis for our new design. In essence this meant creating a wheelie bin toilet. […]
Do you have any information on anyone getting council approval for this type of toilet? Especially in Queensland but any examples would be helpful. I am looking into some low cost building options. Including economical ways of attending to toilet waste and grey water within the legal framework.
Heya, No i dont, I’m sorry – however I do know that the ace compost toilet company http://www.naturalevent.com.au/ who uses wheelie-bin compost toilets for events like Woodford Folk fest obviously *Do* have the legalities sorted out in QLD, in a temporary capacity at least, so I wonder if there’s a line of enquiry there for you? We do know a lot of folks who put in one flush-toilet to meet regs and then revert to composting ways shortly thereafter…
Great article – thank you. I am in the planning stages of something similar and have a couple of questions: 1. you mention that non-absorbed liquids (mostly urine) drains to a gravel-filled leachate pit. I will have a grey water system, but as this liquid must presumably be treated as black water, could you elaborate a little on what such a leachate pit involves? 2. it’s been ten years since you installed these wheelie bin toilets – how is it all going and is there anything you would have done differently? Many thanks!
kia ora from Aotearoa/NZ. Great post thanks. We have cut and paste it into an easily printable document we can take out to our land. Sharing here in case it’s useful for others. https://docs.google.com/document/d/128_qjc7Bk9nfVQk8y-so4pU77z0SPCfSdylgoo8dO_w/edit?usp=sharing
Hi. Just a thought on the outlet tap arrangement. Why not simply attach a hosepipe spigot to the bin then attach a length of hosepipe and fashion some means of holding the free end up to the bin handle for when you want to turn off the ‘tap’? Saves the cost, vulnerability and clogability of a tap fitting.
yeah we actually updated to a simple ag-pipe sized gate on future bins – far less clogg-able –
Love your articles. So well written and explained. Thank you!