Updated 27th March 2021 – Originally written Oct 2020
In a basic, simple compost toilet your cover material should do several things:
- adds a source of carbon, which will work with the nitrogen in the faeces (and urine) to create a balanced mixture for subsequent composting in your compost pile/bin/heap. Getting a good carbon/nitrogen blend will achieve better/faster/optimal composting
- acts as a visual cover so people aren’t staring at poo!
- acts as a bio filter that will stop your loo smelling
Some compost toilets, typically urine-separating models that have an electric ventilation fan, don’t need any cover material at all according to the manufacturers. This is because they use a fan to actively remove odours and help regulate the moisture content of the solids container. However, they will need to have a carbon material and probably moisture added at the composting stage in order to achieve optimal composting.
That said, they might still benefit from an organic soak material in the bottom of the solids container to absorb any excess liquid that might get in from the inevitable ‘little accidents’ – perfect in camping, glamping or shared facilities where guests aren’t used to urine diverting compost toilets!
In addition, even if you have a fan, you might want to use some organic cover material to act as a ‘visual’ cover over the solids if your toilet doesn’t have a concealing or modesty cover.
For a cover material to act as an effective bio filter, it mustn’t be completely dry. The easiest way to achieve this is to leave your cover material outside for a while – this way, it’ll probably get some rain in, and good bacteria will begin breaking the contents of the cover material down, creating an active bio filter. Bacteria are key!
If your compost toilet smells, it’s either because you’re not using enough cover material, or more likely, it’s not active enough in terms of bacteria.
In this article, we’ll cover the most commonly used cover materials and give our view, and the views of others. Remember that everyone is different, and what works for you with your compost toilet, might not necessarily work as well for someone else.
When you’re starting out, don’t invest in too much of one material – keep an open mind and experiment to see what works best for you. Ask around to see what’s working for other people. If you’ve bought a manufactured compost toilet, what does the manufacturer recommend?
Even if your compost toilet has a fan for odour control, a cover material is sometimes used as a ‘soak’ at the bottom of the solids container (a 2.5 – 5 cm or so layer is ideal), and an occasional sprinkling of carbon-rich material over the ‘solids’ will help with the final composting process and provide a way for people to disguise their deposits if they wish to.
Coir or Coconut Coir has gained a lot of attention in recent years as an alternative to peat (which is an environmental no-no).
Coir is a by-product of the coconut industry, and it’s convenient to buy it in highly compressed blocks (about the size of a house brick) which are then reconstituted with water (warm water does the trick even quicker).
A typical coir brick will expand to around 8 litres.
Although it’s a waste product, the distance travelled (air miles) can be an ecological issue to consider, but there are a few other practical issues that have come to light in terms of its suitability as a compost toilet cover material.
Firstly, in reconstituting it with water, you are making it quite moist – you need to find that balance between too wet and not wet enough.
When first using coir, people often add too much water (manufacturers instructions often relate to using it as a garden product), so we advise starting with less than half the recommended amount of water and add more if necessary.
Coir is available in some garden centres, online and at many ‘hydroponics’ shops. It makes sense to buy in bulk as it’s reasonably easy to store in the compressed ‘brick’ form and will keep (as long as it doesn’t get wet) indefinitely.
In terms of its performance as a cover material, coir does quite well. It’s the recommended material for use in Air Head compost toilets.
Often sold as animal bedding, Chopped Straw can be used as a cover material and soak. It’s not that absorbent, but it’s just about OK.
Small bags (compressed) are often available in supermarkets and pet shops, and if you buy larger quantities from farm or equine supplies, it becomes very inexpensive.
People using it have had mixed success with some saying it’s worked ok, and others saying that it’s not so good at odour control. It’s possible that people who have good results have let it become ‘weathered’ and hence populated by the bacteria that will do good work in your loo.
It might be an idea to try alternating covers, so you could try some straw and every other use, try sawdust or shavings.
If you have access to some, or can’t get your usual cover, then it’s worth a try, but generally we wouldn’t put high up the list of ideal cover products.
Wood ash (never use coal ash as it’s highly toxic) is often available for free during the cooler months from your wood burner, and has excellent odour control properties. However, it’s not recommended in compost toilets as it can cause all sorts of issues further on in the composting process, and from a practical perspective, it is very messy and dusty in use.
A composting expert friend of ours makes the following observations on wood ash:
Our personal take on wood ash is not to use it. If you really want to, use it sparingly and in conjunction with other covers.
Sawdust is a very broad term and can mean different things to different people. The very fine ‘dust’ from electric saws and sanders used in woodworking is too fine and too dry – 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 alone.
However, the chunkier bits or ‘nibs’ that might come off electric planers, routers and the like are better. Don’t ever use sawdust from treated wood, plywood or MDF.
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 because they will have been exposed to good bacteria.
Sawdust, like other cover materials, perform best as a bio filter when it’s been allowed to mature. Left somewhere, slightly open to the elements (but don’t let it get too wet), and good bacteria will start to colonise it, making it even better as a cover as the biological actions of composting will have already started.
The easiest option for most people is fine wood shavings. Sold as pet bedding in various sized 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’. Shavings are usually a by-product from timber processing companies, so they’re technically a local waste product and are very dry and easy to store.
Fresh out of the pack however, they are far too dry, so we prefer to wet them slightly or they can be too ‘light and fluffy’. Like sawdust, it’s even better to let it mature outside for a while (let the bacteria get to start on it). The downside to using shavings is that they will take longer to compost in your compost pile, so if you want fast compost, maybe consider something else.
If you’re after larger quantities of wood shavings, try ‘countryside’, farm or equine supply stores – they usually sell large bales at a very low price compared to buying the small bags from the high street.
Compressed wood pellets
Compressed wood pellets, often sold as cat litter, stove pellets or horse bedding are one of our favourites and give a reliable ‘all round’ performance. Sprinkle or spray some water over them to ‘fluff’ them up and they’ll cover well.
Use them uncompressed as the soak layer at the bottom of your solids container and they’ll expand and soak up excess liquids.
They’re not the cheapest cover material (unless you buy the horse bedding version), but are a reliable option that works and readily available from the high street or supermarket.
And the rest…
If you can get something cheap or for free, and it’s fairly fine and organic, then give it a try! We’ve heard of people using spent coffee grounds obtained for free from high street coffee shops (the only issue with coffee grounds is that they can be too damp when fresh, so need a bit of drying out), but if you like coffee, your toilet will smell great!
Other people have tried dried leaves either exclusively or mixed in with other materials. Another person 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”.
If you have an garden shredder, then shredded bush, tree and leaf prunings can be used and are probably the most effective cover material in terms of tackling odours because they’ll come ready-charged with bacteria so are a perfect bio filter. However, some people don’t like their appearance, looking a bit messy!
What about peat moss? Peat moss is a popular option in the USA and some Scandinavian countries, and works well as a cover, however, PLEASE DON’T USE IT – EVER! Peat moss is extracted from peat bogs – a wonderful habitat that’s equivalent to a rainforest, and they are in serious decline. According to Friends of the Earth, peat bogs are a rich haven for wildlife; improves water quality, helps reduce flood risk and acts as a massive carbon sink. Harvesting peat is usually done on an industrial scale and most peat sold in the UK is actually collected in Ireland.
The UK has now lost 94% of its lowland peatlands due to peat extraction and farming. If you have the slightest care for nature and the future of our Earth, just don’t use it (not even in garden compost!).
And the winner is….
If you haven’t already sussed it out, we recommend you start with either fine wood shavings (pet bedding) or compressed wood pellets both as a soak in the base of the solids bucket and as a cover material.
They’re both readily available, easy to store and very dry on purchase. But, as mentioned above, they’ll work even better is they are left outside to ‘age’ for a while.
Shredded garden clippings probably perform the best overall as a bio filter, but don’t look as ‘neat’ as the pellets or shavings – personally this doesn’t bother me, but it might bother you. Best of all, barring the electricity to run the shredder and a bit of your time, they’re free!
Of course, if your compost toilet manufacturer specifically recommends something else, then you should follow their recommendations until you are familiar with the product and whole emptying and composting process.
Another issue to consider with any compost toilet (whether you use a fan or not) is ventilation – the toilet box itself should be ventilated and the room must have some natural ventilation too, otherwise you’ll get a lot of condensation in the toilet and possibly the room too.
What not to use
Joseph Jenkins, acclaimed author of the ‘Humanure Handbook’ mentions some things never to use as a cover material: “You can’t use ashes, you can’t use sand, you can’t use lime, and you can’t use dirt (soil). It must be a plant cellulose material”. So there you have it – the compost toilet god has told you!
What about toilet paper?
Another issue is whether to put toilet paper in the loo (solids area) or not?
In a glamping/camping site, holiday let, or communal use toilet, the best option is to let people put loo paper in the solids bucket. Too many dos and don’ts will just confuse people, so keep it simple.
If it’s your own loo, you might want to consider having a separate bin for loo paper which can then be later composted, binned or burned.
Adding used toilet paper into the solids container will mean it fills up faster, but the flip side is simplicity. It’s up to you which you consider the best option.
What’s been your experience?
Why not let us know what you’ve been using and how well it’s worked for you? Tell us in the comment box below, and don’t forget to mention what make of compost toilet or separator you are using.