Helen Gazeley catches up with composting toilet experts Circular Revolution
IF KATE Saffin were to choose her Mastermind specialist subject it would, undoubtedly, be composting toilets, more accurately described as separators, as they separate liquids from solids.
Not only has she had one for a number of years, is an administrator of the Facebook group Compost Toilets for Boats and Off Grid Living and has begun another to help new composters on boats, but for the past four years has, as a personal project, been delving into how other people deal with them.
The Great Big Boating Bog Survey was first carried out in 2019. The most recent, last year, came not long after the Canal & River Trust said that bags from composting loos should no longer be disposed of in the waterway charity’s bins.
It yielded some interesting results. Of the respondents, only 1.3% reported returning to a water-based system after the CRT’s announcement. Others have adapted. Before the ban only 17% reported that they fully composted. After the ban, that number had risen to 40%.
The survey confirms what one might suspect – that the biggest barrier to composting on board is space. Following on from that are not knowing what to do with the compost and not knowing how to manage it.
Disposal for those who don’t have the inclination or the room to store containers of composting poo on board has, obviously, been something of a problem since CRT’s change of heart. But challenges produce opportunities and, for the first time, the survey showed a small number – 1% – who reported using a collection service in London.
This is down to no small extent to one person, Eve MacKinnon, founder of Circular Revolution (www.circularrevolution.org). Conducting research for a PhD in container-based sanitation systems and how to minimise exposure risks – and needing a third case study alongside projects in India and Kenya – she realised that the composting loos of the London boating community resembled those she was focusing on.
With interest in a collection service confirmed by workshops, she took a proposal to the CRT. Circular Revolution now offers a fortnightly, monthly or one-off service to boaters who wish to offload the contents of their separator toilet.
Other areas of the network have also shown interest in setting up similar schemes, but disposal might prove difficult.
Currently Circular Revolution delivers waste to a composting facility, which unusually accepts septic waste. However, most facilities only accept food and garden material.
From 2021 to 2022, Kate found a slight uptick – from 12.5% to 14.9% – in the number of people who have a separator because it came with the boat they bought. If this continues, it suggests increasing opportunities for waste collection.
“Everyone should have access to a service where they don’t have to deal with their own waste,” says Eve. But whether you could ever have self-supporting services around the waterways network is a moot point. “In the sector,” says Eve, “very few businesses are viable and need subsidies.”
There’s also plenty of room for research. One idea, for example, would be to farm black soldier flies, which eat manures and food waste, and can be turned into a high-quality protein feed for animals. “With ongoing support, we can have greater research.”
With the increasing recognition that we need to treat the world’s resources with greater respect, there seems plenty of scope for forward-thinking in sanitation and water usage. “No other communities in the UK are doing this,” points out Eve. “It needs government support, for the public good.”