A question we’re often asked is “what’s the best cover material for use on a compost toilet?”
Even if your compost toilet has a fan for odour control, a cover material is often used as a ‘soak’ at the bottom of the solids container (a 2.5 – 5 cm or so layer is ideal), and the occasional sprinkling of carbon-rich material will help with the final compost process (if you don’t add much to the bucket whilst in use, you should add a lot of carbon-rich material and mix it with the contents of the toilet in your compost heap to get a good compost).
In a way, the best one is whatever you can get for free or cheap, and if it works, stick with it!
Historically, we used to recommend ‘cocoa shells’ (a waste by-product of the chocolate industry) as they were quite nice smelling and pretty good as a soak material in the base (although less good as a cover). But they’ve become harder to get and there is always the ecological aspect of the number of miles they have travelled to get the UK (albeit they are a waste product), but I can’t help wonder if they can’t be better used in the country that created them.
Another material that has gained traction in recent years is ‘coir’. Again, this is a waste by-product of the coconut industry, and it’s convenient to buy it as highly compressed blocks which are reconstituted with water. As with cocoa shells, the distance travelled can be an ecological issue to consider, but there are a few other practical issues that have come to light. Firstly, in reconstituting it with water, you are clearly making it quite moist, which goes against the principle of cover materials in that they should be fairly dry. So you must leave it a fair period of time to dry out sufficiently. Another issue is that little flying insects tend to seek out coir, and once embedded in your toilet, they hang around – although they don’t cause any real issues, nobody wants little insects flying around their nether regions as you sit on the toilet!
Finely chopped straw, often sold as animal bedding can be used. It’s not that absorbent, but it’s OK. Customers using it have had mixed success with some saying it’s worked well, and others saying that it’s not so good at odour control. It might be an idea to try alternating covers, so you could try some straw and every other use, try sawdust or shavings.
Wood ash (never use coal ash as it’s highly toxic) is often available for free during the cooler months and has excellent odour control properties. However, it can be a bit messy in use and a composting expert colleague of ours makes the following observations on wood ash – “I choose not to use wood ash on compost heaps as when it meets up with high nitrogen materials such as manures or food waste, it makes ammonia which evaporates and thus you lose the nitrogen to the air, rather than having it as nitrates in the soil, where they are a fertiliser. Also, the nutrients in wood ash are extremely soluble so they wash through the compost if it’s open to the rain, as most of mine are. Wood ash is best used around fruit trees in the spring before they come into leaf, helps prevent against bitter pit in apples.” Our personal take on wood ash is to use it occasionally and in conjunction with other covers, especially when you need a bit more odour control for whatever reason 😉
Sawdust as a term can mean different things to different people. The very fine ‘dust’ from electric saws and sanders used in woodworking is too fine – it’s great at being absorbent but rubbish at odour control (although if you have access to some, you could mix it with other cover materials), so we don’t recommend this. However, the chunkier bits or ‘nibs’ that might come off electric planers and the like are better.
One of the best ‘sawdusts’ is the ‘nibs’ of wood you get from using a chainsaw – they are often slightly damp when fresh, but perform extremely well.
The easiest option for most people is fine wood shavings, often sold as pet bedding in various size compressed blocks and readily available on the high street at low cost. As you can see from the photo below, the shavings are fairly fine, but not a true ‘sawdust’. They are usually sourced from timber processing companies, so are technically a local waste product and are very dry and easy to store.
As we mentioned above, if you can get something cheap or for free, and it’s fairly fine and organic, then give it a try! We’ve had customers use wood-based cat litter as a soak and others have tried spent Coffee grounds obtained for free from high street coffee shops (the only issue with coffee grounds is that they are quite damp, so need a lot of drying out). Other people have tried dried leaves either exclusively or mixed in with other materials. Another customer has mentioned that ‘shredded hemp stalk’ sold as horse bedding in equine supply shops “rots down quickly, is highly absorbent and reduces smells and is cheap in square bales”.
Keep it dry – for the moment!
As you might gather, the key aim in a urine-separating compost toilet is to keep the solids bucket fairly dry whilst it’s in situ – the contents (faeces is around 80% water when ‘fresh’) will start to break down and compost, but not rapidly. When the solids bucket is full and you transfer it onto your secondary compost pile/bin, then this is the time to reintroduce some moisture as you kick-start the composting process, but that’s another topic for another day!
And the winner is….
If you haven’t already sussed it out, we recommend you start with fine wood shavings (pet bedding) both as a soak in the base of the solids bucket and as a cover material. It’s inexpensive, readily available, easy to store and very dry on purchase. Above all else, it simply works in most cases.
Another issue to consider with any compost toilet (whether you use a fan or not) is ventilation – the toilet box itself must be well ventilated and the room must have some natural ventilation too. We’ll cover ventilation and fans etc in a future article…
The final issue is whether to put toilet paper in the loo or not. If your loo is being used in a glamping site or holiday let, then it can get complicated giving people too many instructions, so the best approach here is let people put paper in the solids bucket, let them use as much cover material as they need, and ensure adequate ventilation (or use a fan to vent odours outside for the ultimate in odour control with minimal user intervention). If it’s your own loo, you might want to consider having a separate bin for loo paper which can be composted or burned, but it’s all up to you…
Charging your cover material with bacteria
Very dry cover, such as wood shavings, will be devoid of any natural bacteria. In our experience, if possible, leave your cover material outside and slightly exposed to the elements for as long as possible – this will mean bacteria will start to inhabit the cover, and once sprinkled in your loo, they can kick-start the composting process, reducing odours etc.
Why not let us know what you’ve used and what degree of success, or not, you’ve had? What has worked, or not worked for you?