how to set up and manage an emergency compost toilet


Our latest booklet explaining how to set up and manage a simple effective composting toilet for emergency or everyday use is available in .pdf booklet version here. Or you can read all about it below.

  • emergency compost toilets
  • the toilet
  • cover material
  • the compost
  • using the poo bucket
  • using the pee bucket
  • using the wheelie bin compost
  •  an alternative compost pile
  • a really short term alternative


emergency compost toilets

Compost toilets are easy to construct and use, but in an emergency situation you may be a bit stressed and have other things to get on with, so it’s best to get your emergency toilet sorted beforehand.

There are usually three parts to a homemade composting toilet system: the toilet, the cover material, and the compost.


the toilet

There are many different ways to make the toilet, and you can be as creative as you like.

The most important thing is that it should be closed when not in use, so that flies or insects cannot fly in and out of your poo collection.

We recommend using two 20 litre buckets with lids, and using one for pee and one for poo  This will give you the opportunity to control how much pee goes into your compost pile; more on that later.

Below are a few examples of things people have used for the toilet. Instructions for how to build your own twin seater toilet are available here.


cover material

The cover material is what you cover your poo with in your poo bucket. It should be carbon rich, absorbent and chemical free. For example:

  • forest litter
  • untreated sawdust (semi broken down is best)
  • dry leaves
  • shredded paper
  • soil
  • untreated wood shavings.

A mixture of fine and coarse things is best because the fine things will break down more easily and the coarse things will create air spaces in the compost pile.

Forest litter from underneath a stand of broom, mixed with aged untreated sawdust – an ideal cover material.

the compost

Just like regular compost, a humanure compost needs air, moisture, and a balance of carbon and nitrogen to work optimally.

Poo and pee are relatively high in nitrogen, so most of the cover material you add should be rich in carbon, to create the balance.

Additionally, you need to make sure that animals and insects cannot get in and out of the part of the pile with raw poo in it. You will also need to ensure that no leachate from the pile goes into the ground.

For this reason we recommend using a closed container, like a wheelie bin, which is easy and safe to manage in an emergency situation. Below are instructions for making a wheelie bin compost pile.


preparing a wheelie bin compost



• wheelie bin

• small length of down pipe, or bundle of sticks

• criss-cross stack of coarse sticks

• plastic tap


setting it up

  • Inside the wheelie bin place something that will keep the poo mixture off the base of the bin. We recommend using a criss-cross array of coarse sticks piled up to over 200mm thick.
  •  Put another 200mm layer of absorbent organic material on top of the bundle of sticks. A layer of dry straw works well here.
  • Place a piece of downpipe up an inside corner of the wheelie bin. It should extend from the bottom to about 50mm below the top of the wheelie bin. Drill or cut small holes along the entire length of the pipe. The purpose of the pipe is to allow air to flow up and down the compost pile.
  •  Alternatively, you can bundle together a collection of open sticks and arrange them in the bin instead of the down pipe.
  •  Fit a plastic tap near the bottom of the wheelie bin, for draining off any excess liquid that collects in the lower chamber.

using the poo bucket

  • When you start a new poo bucket, put about four handfuls of cover material in the bottom of the empty bucket.

    This is how it should look after you have covered your poo with cover material

  • Sit down and do your business as per usual.
  • Don’t worry if you pee when you poo. However,  if you just want to do a pee, then do it in the pee bucket or just pee in the garden. Having some pee in the poo mix will help it to compost, but you don’t want it to get too wet or things will become smelly and anaerobic inside the wheelie bin.
  • After you are done pooing, place a handful or two of cover material in the toilet to completely cover your poo.
  • If you have done some pee in the poo bucket then put in some extra cover material to soak it up.
  • Toilet paper should be dropped into the poo bucket.
  • Put the toilet seat back down and/or replace the lid, making sure your bucket is inaccessible to flies.

By the way, NEVER put any chemicals, bleach or deodorisers into the toilet, these may disrupt the composting process by killing your microbial friends.

using the pee bucket

  • Each day quarter fill the pee bucket with water. Pee is mostly nitrogen, which is really good for the garden, but plants can absorb it more easily when it is diluted.
  • Pee into the bucket.
  • Once a day, pour your diluted pee under a bush or tree in the garden. You should empty the pee bucket daily because as the nitrogen evaporates it becomes smelly.
  • After peeing, throw the toilet paper into the poo bucket.


using the wheelie bin compost 

  • When your poo bucket is full, take it outside and tip it into the wheelie bin that has been set up.
  •  When you tip it in,  have a look at the mixture. Is it really wet and sloppy? If so, add more dry cover material. Is it too dry? If so, next time you go for a pee, pour some undiluted pee into the bin. The mixture should be moist but not wet.
  • After tipping the poo mix into the wheelie bin, place a layer of organic matter on top. You can use straw, garden weeds, lawn clippings, kitchen scraps, soil, leaves or forest litter.
  • Do not add lime or ash or anything inorganic.
  • Rinse the bucket with a small amount of water and scrub with a toilet brush, taking care where you put the rinse water. You can put it in your wheelie bin and add more dry organic material to keep the moisture levels down. Do not use chemical cleaning products as these may inhibit the composting process. You can use a small amount of biodegradable soap.
  • After washing the buckets leave them in the sun to help dry and sterilize them.
  • Flip the lid closed on the wheelie bin and leave in a moderately warm location somewhere in the garden.
  • Once the wheelie bin is three quarters full, fill it up to the top with a layer of organic material.  Grass clippings and soil are good at this point to get some heat and microbial diversity into the system.  If you have a worm farm or know someone with one, place a handful of tiger worms in the bin.

With a household of 3-4 people you should have about a month of use before you fill the wheelie bin.

  • Leave the bin for 1 year, opening it occasionally to check that it hasn’t dried up at the top of the pile. If it looks dry, decant some liquid from the tap at the bottom of the bin, and pour it on the top of the pile.

After a year or more, you can use the compost. If you have any doubts about pathogens then don’t use it on food crops, but dig it into an ornamental part of the garden or under fruit trees. They will love it.


an alternative compost pile

  • If you haven’t organized a wheelie bin and you find yourself in an emergency toilet situation, you can just use your regular compost pile. But you will need to make a few alterations to keep it sanitary.
  • First put a thick layer of coarse dry absorbent organic material down. This will soak up any liquids that seep through the pile. This layer can be really thick as it will squash down once the compost is piled on top.  Dry straw, dry leaves and weeds are a good option.
  • Before emptying your poo bucket into the pile, make a small dish shaped depression in the centre of the pile and then put all of your poo mixture into the middle.
  • If you are using an open compost pile like the one in the picture below, and you live in a warm dry place like central Otago, there will be more evaporation than in a wheelie bin, so the poo mixture can be moister, and you will not need to separate the pee from poo. Just put it all in.
  • Rinse the buckets clean and/or scrub clean with a handful of straw, and pour the rinse water or place the straw into the centre of the pile too.
  • Cover the poo mix completely with a thick layer of cover material such as straw, leaves, weeds, forest litter etc.
  • If you have problems with rodents, birds or other animals getting into your pile, you will need to net it off or lay out some traps.
  • When the pile is getting too big or when you have finished using your compost toilet, make sure your compost pile is really well covered with cover material and leave it alone without adding anything for at least a year.
  • After a year is up, use the compost in the garden as described for the wheelie bin compost. Get in touch with us if you have any questions or concerns about using your compost.


a really short-term alternative

 If you are in an emergency toilet situation and you need a really basic short term solution here is how to safely make and manage a short-drop in your back yard.

  • Dig a hole about 500mm deep and 400mm diameter in a private spot in the garden. Making your hole shallow, keeps your poo in the active layer of the soil.
  • Put a 150mm layer of broken twigs and sticks in the bottom. This will help separate the pee from the poo so that the pee can drain away easily.
  • Do what you can to make a comfortable discrete seating arrangement:
      • Cut the bottom out of a 20 lt bucket
      • Put the bucket upside down on a 700x700mm piece of plywood and draw a line around the inside of the bucket.  Screw the bucket on the plywood using the rim of the bucket to screw through.
      • Take a 400x400mm piece of plywood and put the toilet seat over the centre and draw around the inside hole of the toilet seat.  Then get the bottom of the bucket which is now cut out, and position it towards the back of the toilet seat shape.  Cut this bucket shape circle out and push the bucket into the hole and fix screws from the inside of the bucket into the ply-wood.
      • Fix the toilet seat to the smaller piece of plywood.
      • Put the whole thing over your newly dug hole and you have an immediate toilet.

  • Poo into the hole and put your toilet paper in.
  • Cover each and every deposit completely with organic cover material (see page 3). This will eliminate the odors, help the poo to break down and ensure flies don’t get into it. Do not add lime or ash or anything inorganic.
  • When you have nearly filled the hole with deposits, add a layer of organic matter and then fill the rest of the hole in with soil.
  • Leave it for a year and watch that space, things will grow well.

Note: This option is no good if the ground water level is really high.