In discussions of off-grid living a frequent suggestion is to use a sawdust toilet. I've been using one daily for about two-and-a-half years now. In
this post I want to focus on day-to-day aspects of using a sawdust toilet. But first, a brief description of what a sawdust toilet system is about.
At its most basic, a sawdust toilet is simply a bucket that you use as a toilet. Instead of water that gets flushed away, sawdust or some other
covering material covers up the bucket contents until the bucket gets full. As part of a composting system, you can dump the bucket contents into a
There are all kinds of plans online for constructing an attractive sawdust toilet. These enclosures are primarily for aesthetics although you can also
build an enclosure that provides storage space for essentials such as toilet paper or cloths and sawdust. A bucket (usually a 5 gallon bucket) is the
primary "working part" of the sawdust toilet. A snap on lid is a good idea for when you are hauling out a full bucket to be emptied outside. A
toilet seat is optional but for more than emergency use you'll want one unless you want to use your bucket exclusively as a squat toilet. You don't
even have to have one of those special seats that snap onto a 5 gallon bucket. A regular toilet seat works fine. You can remove the little spacers on
the bottom of the seat and the lid in order to get a better seal and eliminate gaps.
Detailed information on styles of sawdust toilets and how to compost human waste are easily found online and in the
Even if you don't plan to use a sawdust toilet fulltime until you get off-grid or are forced into it due to some kind of SHTF situation, it could be
a good idea to set aside a few days now and then to practice the art of pooping in a bucket -- if it is feasible where you live. You may find that for
some family members it's not as simple as it sounds at first.
("Fecal Phobia"): A lot of people have issues with anything other than a standard flushing toilet. They may not even realize
they have those issues until faced with not having a "real" toilet. (A good reason for some practice runs.) That has been the case with 2 of our
farm residents. One eventually made peace with the bucket. The other hasn't. He pees outside. For anything else, he "holds it" until he's
somewhere with a flushing toilet. Perhaps he'll come around in time. My daughter and I, on the other hand, have embraced the bucket. No clogged
toilets. No sewage backups. And yes, sometimes we do feel a little smug about not wasting perfectly good water by flushing it into a sewer or septic
tank. The compost we're creating hasn't even come into play for us yet but that's another plus if we ever need more than our animals supply.
Should you discover that some members of your family have difficulty with the sawdust toilet, it can help to provide them with their own private
bucket. Some people may have trouble "doing their business" in a bucket that they know already contains deposits from others. Or, they may be
uncomfortable leaving their own deposits that others might see. It's a mental image thing. If a separate bucket is not feasible, good covering
practices can help. Emphasize the need to put a good layer of cover material over everything when you use the toilet. Seeing an uncovered pile of poo
-- especially if it's not your own -- can turn off some folks. And it's not just poo. If you don't use enough cover material and the bucket fills
up with pee, the "splashback" could make some people squeamish. Plus the smell isn't pleasant -- day-old pee stinks.
: Speaking of smells. Until they've used one on a regular basis, some people assume that the bucket is going to stink all the time.
It doesn't have to. These aren't like a port-a-potty. If you use an adequate layer of cover material it suppresses the odor just fine. You could
even leave the toilet lid up and not be overwhelmed by stink. But if you don't use enough cover material then, yes, a little odor can build up and it
just looks a bit nasty. Don't want to smell it (or look at it)? Cover it up.
EMPTYING THE BUCKET
: When it comes time to empty the bucket (I call it "flushing the toilet") there can be a few minutes of unpleasantness.
After the first time or two you get used to it and it really is no big deal. Honest. A full 5 gallon bucket gets heavy so you may want to empty it
when it gets no more than about 3/4 full. Plus, if the bucket is almost full to the brim you can't sit down or else you end up with sawdust in your
butt. Not cool. Before you traipse through the house with a full bucket, put a lid on it. You do not want to accidently spill your bucket in the
When you first empty the bucket there's going to be some odor but if you're doing your compost properly (covering fresh deposits with hay or other
material) that won't last long. Rinse out the bucket before returning it to the house. The cleaning station near our compost pile includes a drum of
rainwater and a toilet bowl brush. Just pour the rinse water back over the compost pile.
Who empties the bucket could become an issue if you don't plan ahead. If you make it one person's regular chore or use the task as punishment,
resentment builds up. In retaliation you may find that the bucket is always full every time you really, really, really need to go. Unless someone is
physically unable to tote a full bucket, rotate the task among everyone who uses the sawdust toilet. After a while it becomes not such a big deal.
There are far worse jobs -- such as cleaning up after a regular flush toilet gets clogged and overflows. EWWWWWWWW
: It's good to have 2 or 3 buckets to rotate. If the weather is bad you can sit a full bucket (with lid) on the back porch to
empty it later and use a different bucket in the bathroom. Also, if you really gotta go and your first bucket is full, you'll be grateful that backup
bucket is close at hand. Letting one bucket sit outside to air out for a day or so while another is in use is also a good practice.
: Although sawdust is the commonly recommended cover material, you can use other things. We currently use the same wood chips that we
use as small animal bedding. I used shredded leaves for a week or so when I ran out of other material. Whatever you use, provide a scoop of some kind
(such as a bowl or cup). It will keep your bathroom cleaner. I've just grabbed a few handfuls of cover material at times but even the short distance
from the container to the toilet results in spills on the floor and all over the seat. A scoop keeps things neat. When you start a new bucket, add
some fresh cover material to the bottom of the bucket. This provides a nice landing pad for the first deposit in the empty toilet. How much you use
each time varies depending on how much you need to cover up. If there is already a fairly thick layer you can often run in to pee and skip the cover
material that time. Of course if you live alone and don't have to worry about the sensitivities of others, you can use as little or as much as you
: Help make guests who may not use a sawdust toilet more comfortable. Put in a fresh bucket before they arrive. Post a set of clear
instructions that describe how to use your fancy toilet.
Everybody poops somewhere. We use a bucket. Hope these tips help some of you considering a sawdust toilet setup.