Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way


We have two types of composting toilets on the quinta: dry toilets and vermicomposting flush toilets.

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Dry toilets

We have built composting toilets according to the system popularised by Joe Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook (now in its 3rd (UPDATE) 4th edition and available to read online). I like this system the most of all the dry toilets I’ve looked at because it doesn’t require the construction of a separate building (or allocating sufficient space) to accommodate a twin-chamber toilet and its composting bins below. There is no requirement to separate urine from faeces, and the composting system is efficient and designed for optimum thermophilic decomposition. It’s also beautifully simple and easy to construct and maintain, and it’s convenient and portable.

People became so enthusiastic about this system and their home-made units that Jenkins’ toilets got dubbed "Loveable Loos" – not surprising when you consider he’s employing the KISS principle – and he’s now been persuaded to manufacture them for people who don’t want to build their own.

Here’s a video about them …

The only disadvantage to this system is that it’s necessary to empty the collecting bins and wash them out on a regular basis, but the modern squeamishness about human waste products seems a bit odd to me. This isn’t really any different to cleaning out the chicken coop.

Jenkins’ composting method has been developed over more than 30 years of use. He uses bins rather than heaps as the efficiency of the composting process relies on keeping the waste well contained in the centre of the material, surrounded by other organic matter and with a substantial ‘sponge’ of material below. This prevents smells and the likelihood of the waste leaching into the soil or watercourses in a raw state. The human waste is also well mixed with other organic material, vegetable peelings, cooking scaps, etc, which results in a more nutrititive compost than human waste + woodshavings alone (which Jenkins doesn’t recommend using).

More videos from Joe Jenkins here.

Vermicomposting flush toilets

In spring 2013, I came across a different system for dealing with human waste based on an ordinary flush toilet. This system, pioneered by Anna Edey in the 1990s, uses worms and their associated ecosystem to deal with the waste and plants to manage the treated liquid residues.

I saw that I could substantially simplify Anna Edey’s system using components from the industrial waste stream and decided to experiment with it for the wee house, and we built it during the summer of 2013. It was finally commissioned in early 2014 once we finished connecting a water supply to this side of the quinta and the worms are currently doing an excellent job.

Vermicomposting flush toilet

So good, in fact, that when a problem arose locally with a village septic tank discharging untreated sewage into a protected landscape, I went to the local municipality with a Portuguese architect friend to suggest they adopt a vermicomposting solution to our design. The municipality agreed to the idea, subject to permission from the national conservation organisation with overall jurisdiction over the protected landscape. Unfortunately this was not forthcoming owing (we think) to us not being ‘corporate’ enough, but the municipality were keen to take the idea further regardless.

The domestic-scale vermicomposting sewerage system installed here at Quinta do Vale is now approved for use in this area under the provisions for ‘septic tank with drainage’ and is being adopted by a growing number of people. We’ve overseen the installation of a system for the local junta de freguesia to replace a defective septic tank and more are in the pipeline.

A vermicomposting toilet workshop at Quinta do Vale, July 2019

Teaching a vermicomposting toilet workshop at Quinta da Vale, July 2019

I’ve also given a number of workshops both locally and further afield on installing the system. It’s all open-sourced and there’s now a website dedicated to the system with case studies and a forum for the user community to ask questions and iron out any difficulties.

The next stage is to have the system studied and monitored by a university environmental engineering department to provide the analyses necessary to have the system fully approved in its own right for use throughout the country.

Meanwhile I’m still working with the system to see if I can improve design and functioning.

If you would like to help this work in any way, there are opportunities to contribute. In 2020/2021, we added two new worm toilets to the quinta to cope with the number of people we now have staying here on courses. These constructions are now substantially complete (just the plastering to do)..

Click/tap on either image for more details of each project

A new toilet and shower block
A worm toilet for the main building

The fires

Vermicomposting flush toilet repaired after the fires of October 2017

The vermicomposting toilet worm tank was partially burnt in the October 2017 fires. This was due to a water supply pipe running through the back of the tank enclosure. MDPE burns like a wick so when the pipe caught fire outside the tank enclosure, it took the fire through the dry stone wall into the interior of the enclosure. There it set light to the PVC waste pipe and the top of the IBC tank. The top of the IBC tank burned and the walls as far as the worm compost melted, collapsing in on the worm compost.

It was a while before we could get round to replacing the burned-out tank, but when we did, the worms and their compost were still fine. We installed a new tank, redid the pipework, put back the worms and their compost and the toilet is now working again.

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