The debate over the eco-toilet rolls on

– says enthusiast Helen Hutt.

Let me firstly declare, I’m a fan of eco-toilets. As a continuous cruiser, I bought one in 2009. Every two months or so, I emptied my poo pot into a 10-litre paint tub with a tight-fitting lid until I could dispose of the contents, using a network of amenable farmers’ muck heaps and friends with garden compost bins. Never, ever, would I have considered ‘bagging and binning’ it!

There weren’t many of us back then and, indeed, we were considered a bit strange. But the idea caught on and at some point, I think around 2017, someone asked CRT how they could dispose of their solid waste. CRT rightly advised it could be bagged and binned – and unfortunately that resulted in a surge of interest from boaters who had previously thought disposal was an insurmountable issue. You know how the story has unfolded from there!

You’ll notice I don’t call it a composting toilet – because that’s exactly what it isn’t! A better term is ‘separating toilet’ because that’s exactly what it is. I know of one boater who insists that what he takes out of his poo pot is fully composted, but I don’t get that. Assuming the toilet is in daily use, how can yesterday’s poo be composted today when normally it takes six months?

Over the last few years, manufacturers have produced ever more sophisticated and better-looking separating toilets, which is great so long as boaters buying them fully understand the implications of disposal. Urine can be tipped into a toilet or Elsan, or into a soakaway at least ten metres from a watercourse, or diluted and used as a fertiliser for non-edible plants. Easy. The problem lies with – what shall we call it? – ‘humanure’ is a term I quite like.

Environmentally, composting ‘humanure’ is the best way to go. It should never go to landfill, where it releases potentially 20 times more greenhouse gases than composting. A separating loo uses no water and no chemicals. It’s no more disgusting to empty than an Elsan – and you have to do it far less often. What’s not to like?

CRT has no contractual obligation to provide facilities of any kind, but it would be great if they (and other navigation authorities) installed a few compost bins around the network. Let’s face it, they will take a lot of persuading to find the necessary cash from already-stretched budgets – but it’s not out of the question. It would avert the problem of Elsans blocked by ‘humanure’. There would need to be fewer bins than Elsans, because separating toilets don’t need to be emptied so often. There are no moving parts or electrical connections, so maintenance would be low. Depending on the size, each bin would need to be emptied perhaps twice a year. Bins would be lidded and accessible only with a Watermate key, to cut down on misuse. They could also be sited at boatyards, marinas or waterside businesses, where the resulting compost could be used on flowerbeds. I’m encouraged to hear that CRT is looking at running a pilot scheme and hope that produces positive results.

This is a big subject, and I could go on for a long time, but I’ll sum up with a few key messages:

  • Boaters: consider the implications before installing a separating toilet, but do your best to find a way because you’ll be helping the environment as well as yourself;
  • Everyone: (including manufacturers and navigation authorities) stop referring to ‘composting toilets’ and use the terms ‘separating’ or ‘eco’ instead;
  • Everyone: start thinking of ‘humanure’ as a resource, not a waste product. “It’s only waste if you waste it” says boater and campaigner, Dr Kate Saffin;
  • CRT and other navigation authorities: embrace this new environmentally sound trend and find a way to provide or enable adequate facilities as soon as possible.

We all need to think about the bigger picture here!