How Does a Compost Toilet Work?

Written by: Jamie

Updated on: March 26, 2021

Compost toilets are a simple and effective way to contribute to a healthier environment. Today, we find out how they work their magic. 


“There is no Planet B” – this is a phrase that has been circulating the internet for the past year or so, and for good reason: to remind us, that this life we’re living is not a rehearsal.

We only have one planet earth and it is up to us to protect it by any means possible.

We are all very well aware of how our lifestyle choices can affect our natural environment and climate change and yet, many of us choose to ignore the readily available alternatives that contribute to sustainable, eco-conscious living.

One of the main areas of sustainable living we should be looking at is our own households.

We waste liters and liters of water during our daily showers or baths, the washing-up and trips to the toilet and never really stop to think about how we could be wasting less.

While it’s understandable that not every family feels comfortable sporting an “If it’s yellow let it mellow if it’s brown flush it down” sign above their toilet, it’s a small price to be when it comes to saving our environment.

The alternative building community has taken it a step further by turning to a toilet system that benefits the environment and, when used correctly, your vegetable garden too: the compost toilet.

Most tiny houses, yurts and mobile homes these days are fitted with compost toilets to fit in line with the sustainable living philosophy: creating less waste and recycling the waste we do create for other purposes.

How does a Composting Toilet Work?

There are different types of composting toilets but all of them share one thing in common – they are dry toilets hence no water is used for flushing.

Modern systems, such as the Nature’s Head composting toilet – extremely popular among tiny house dwellers and off-grid living situations – are made up of two different chambers.

The front chamber is fitted with a urine bottle, the back-chamber is for solids only. This means that urine and fecal matters are kept separately, making the decomposition process a lot less smelly.

You’ll be surprised at just how little odor there is when the solid waste is kept dry and mixed with the composting material.

The urine bottle should be emptied every day really, but this depends upon how well used it is.

Whereas the back chamber is fitted with a mixing handle, which will mix bulking material in with your waste, thus breaking it down easier.

Keep your compost bin topped up!

The simplest form of composting toilets is a one-chamber situation much like the “hole-in-the-ground”, only instead of squatting over a hole, you’ll have the modern comforts of an actual toilet seat.

The difference is, instead of your waste flushing down into a sewage system, it is directly deposited into a bucket, bag or box.

To mask any odors, a generous helping of sawdust is sprinkled on top of the waste to neutralize the smell.

Recommended Reading: Don’t miss our guide to the top performing composting toilets.

The Pros & Cons

Now that you know how a compost toilet works, you may be considering purchasing or even building one of your own.

Composting toilets are the ideal solutions for those who have committed to a life on the road or on the water or anyone looking to switch to a sustainable lifestyle off-grid.

If you want to be sure that this eco-conscious toilet system is for you, make sure you are aware of the pros and cons.


As an exercise, count the number of times you flush the toilet on any given day – it adds up, doesn’t it?

Especially if you live in an old home with a toilet system designed before the eighties – these systems use up to seven gallons of water per flush, whereas newer toilets use 1.6 gallons a flush, which is, of course, an improvement, but still not entirely eco-friendly.

By installing a compost toilet, not only will you be saving a lot of water, but also costs.

One of the greatest benefits of having a compost toilet is, well, free compost!

If the thought of using your own waste on the food you plant and eat is making you shudder, we’re happy to put your mind at ease: the compost breaks down quickly and is completely odorless – in fact, it’ll smell a lot better than the manure you typically buy at garden centers.

Another huge benefit to the environment is that you will no longer be flushing chemicals down the toilet. A lot of these chemicals end up in the ground as greywater which isn’t always treated properly.

Recommended: Fancy making your own compost toilet?


In all honesty, most of the cons of having a composting toilet are psychological. It’s silly, we’re all human and we all have the same bodily functions – read: everybody poops – and yet, we treat the mention of it as a taboo.

And this can make introducing your guests to the compost toilet system a tad awkward if they tend to be squeamish about these types of discussions. A lot of people like to pretend their waste doesn’t exist – hence, an eagerness to quickly flush it down, out of sight out of mind.

Yes, the maintenance part of a compost toilet system can be a bit off-putting – after all, there are not a lot of people who happily volunteer for any job that involves the handling of humanure.

If you stay on top of maintenance however, there is no reason why you should be faced with any great stink. In fact, you’ll opt for emptying out your compost toilet over changing a diaper any day.

The only real con to purchasing a compost toilet is the initial cost. A professionally designed compost toilet from brands like Nature’s Head or Sun-Mar Compact, costs between $900 and $1500 – and these prices can cause anyone to gulp. However, it is totally worth it considering the costs you’ll be saving in the long run.

Recommended: Don’t miss our BioLet Compost toilet review.

Nature’s Worth It

If you’re still unsure as to whether a compost toilet is for you, think of it this way: would you rather continue hurting our planet or contribute to breaking the stigma surrounding dry flush toilets?

Sure, reverting to compost toilets may feel like you are going “back to basics” but why not?

If it means keeping our earth happy and nourished for future generations to come, it seems like a sacrifice worth making. And, at the very least, a compost toilet will make your next camping trip a lot more comfortable.

About the Author Jamie

I'm an English teacher and writer. I'm passionate about the environment and love the tiny house movement!

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