Yesterday (October 19th) was the United Nations’ designated World Toilet Day.  While it is maybe not the most appealing over-the-dinner-table subject, there are many many reasons to devote time to thinking about – and re-thinking the design of – our toilets.

There are sanitary, environmental and social reasons to dedicate time and resources to creating accessible and appropriately functioning toilets.  Proper disposal of waste prevents spreading contagious diseases, untreated and unprocessed raw sewage contaminates fresh water, and our society just doesn’t accept people  – especially women – just going anywhere.  Venturing out into the dark to find a place to relieve yourself can be a very scary venture as a single woman.  But while they have drastically improved our quality of life, toilets as most of us know them also have some serious environmental consequences.  Toilets help us reduce the spread of disease and contaminants in our own home and property, but the sewage systems in industrialized countries createa a  – not-in-my-backyard problem of many peoples small amounts of waste and bringing it all together in massive pools that then need chemical treatment to process and use billions of gallons of fresh water in the process.  There are in fact many other solutions to disposing of our waste – in our own backyards – and even turning it into products with net gain.  Composting toilets provide social and sanitary solutions to our waste issues and also have many potential environmental benefits.  And with some recent attention and funding from the Bill Gates foundation, toilets may soon earn us profits by creating electricity and producing high protein animal feed!

Here is a slide show of some of my favorite Nicaraguan composting toilets:

 This is a hand made seat for a dry composting toilet.  A dry composting toilet, or baño seco, separates the urine from solid waste and doesn’t use any potable water to operate.  Urine alone is a sterile, nitrogen-packed liquid, and breaks down quickly, so once it is separated it can be drained directly into a garden (best if the hose is moved around every now and then) or deposited into a bucket which can be emptied over a compost or fermented and applied directly to young crops.  The solid waste falls into a container beneath the toilet.  The container should be large enough to take at least a year to fill, and then the seat disconnects and moves over a second container.  The filled container is capped and left to decompose over another year, at which point any harmful bacteria is burnt up in the fermenting process and it is a dry, rich organic fertilizer.

The composting toilet is on a slope so the containers of dry waste can be accessed when they are full.

A distinct benefit to the dry composting toilet over the standard outhouse is that it is the presence of urine that creates the foul odor associated with raw sewage, and so this outhouse has an earthy, fermented smell but it’s not unpleasant.  Even though the design avoids any direct handling of contaminated waste, it is still recommended to use the finished fertilizer on perrenial crops or forage.  This particular dry composting toilet is in coffee country, and so the family has directed both the urine hose and the dry fertilizer to their coffee plants.


These dry separating toilets have become very popular in the region.  Raleigh International, a british based organization that has been doing water projects in the area for years, recently helped to build and install 40 more toilets in a nearby community.  This time they worked with a design that can be more easily mass produced than the hand built clay toilet seat – a concrete seat and base with metal walls.


A few years ago a friend near us who owns the Barca de Oro Hostal on the Las Peñitas beach built four beautiful bamboo cabins with composting toilets in a lush green yard behind the hostal.  She worked with a local fiberglass craftsman to create a system that fit her needs.  Here is a rather glowing picture of the toilet, with the daylight dramatically lighting up the fixture in the dim light of the cabin.  In her system, there is a system of pvc tubes that take the urine to a point far away from the cabins.  A detachable fiberglass tank is fitted underneath the bathroom, so that instead of needing the space to put two containers in the bathroom, the filled fiberglass take is removed, capped and left to decompose and an empty one is attached.

The new methane producing systems have ceramic bowls and don’t separate waste.




Other than producing fertilizer, composting toilets can also produce methane, which can be used as cooking fuel.  Also created using animal manure in bio-digestors, methane provides rural Nicaraguan women with an alternative to burning wood fuel for cooking – eliminated smoke and soot from the kitchen and improving the family’s risks of respiratory illness.  One of the coffee cooperatives in the Jinotega has given members access to this type of composting toilet – and last Christmas when we went up to pick coffee for a few days we were treated to a breakfast cooked on fuel we helped produce!

The sealed tank outside holds all the waste and has space to collect the methane. When it fills the fermented solids can also be used as fertilizer.

Includes a clean new stovetop!