Compostable Toilets: Pooping with Purpose (Crapping for a Cause?)


The toilet is as good a spot for reflection or reading as it is for excretion. For those out there who might be wondering, “what will the bathroom experience be like at Rio Muchacho? How will it complement my learning and time there?” I have an answer for you. Allow me to paint a picture. You are sitting on a toilet seat, staring at the bamboo walls that surround you and shelter you from the outside elements. The tropical birds are chirping and the sun is shining. You do your business (whatever that might be), wipe, and toss the toilet paper in the toilet. You turn to flush, but instead of sending 3-5 gallons of polluted water out into the ecosystem (and conveniently out of your consciousness), you dump a cup of sawdust into the toilet and you are done. This sawdust provides a nice dose of Carbon to work with the nitrogen that you have already so kindly provided. Once the toilet is full you might have the honor of helping to move this early stage humanure to another holding container where microorganisms will feast for 6 months to a year. They will spend this time degrading and transforming the compost, and while doing so will remove all potential human pathogens with the heat they produce in this process. Finally, this humanure will be used to return valuable nutrients to the soil. At Rio Muchacho we use our humanure for pastures and reforestation, not directly on the vegetable gardens. Even though it would be completely safe, we want people to feel comfortable eating the delicious fresh food we enjoy daily.

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While the users experience is quite comparable to the typical visit to the restroom, the outcome is completely different. The moment of flushing a toilet, an action, which I have often done with apprehension only because I fear it might clog, and not that I might be directly contributing to environmental degradation, is a moment that really changes everything. The most obvious problem with flushing is how much water it wastes. The less obvious negative effects of the flush are the way in which it breaks the animal nutrient cycle. In a proper animal nutrient cycle, we grow food, eat food, gather excrement and compost it (which means we feed it to friendly bacterial microorganisms and make sure they have plenty of oxygen to work with), and then return these available nutrients to the soil to reuse and start the cycle again. By flushing a toilet we break this cycle in two damaging ways. First, we discard our precious nutrient rich fecal matter and urine in a manner that creates waste and leads to pollution. If we do not allow humanure to sit and compost, we are left with human waste. Human waste is a dream location for disease to hang out and spread. At treatment plants human waste is converted into Sewage and treated water. Sewage is full of medical, chemical, and industrial hazardous materials and is usually sent to a landfill. This buried waste and chemicals creates massive amounts of methane, and is a major contributor to global warming. Even treated water can still have high amounts of these chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs, nitrates, chlorine, etc. Jenkins (2005) provides the astounding statistics that each human produces 1000 pounds of humanure per year, which is not used as such, and instead finds its way into landfills and our drinking and swimming water. The second major negative effect of the flush, and break in the animal nutrient cycle, is that because we send this aforementioned precious and nutrient dense manure to landfills and our water, we must resort to chemical fertilizers to get nutrients back into the soil while growing food. These fertilizers are nasty in many ways, one of the biggest being that the nutrient runoff due to the misuse of these chemicals is the leading cause of water pollution in our natural bodies of water. The toilets at Rio Muchacho allow us to complete the nutrient cycle, thereby lessening the impact of human waste and chemical fertilizers on the planet, and reducing water pollution and all the wasted water that flows with each flush.

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Aside from the first person experiences I have had with these awesome Johns, I got all the information in this post from other volunteers and the “The Humanure Handbook” by Joseph Jenkins. I highly recommend that you give it a read, maybe even while enjoying one of the ethical and pleasant potties here at Rio Muchacho.

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Cultivating new space: The Hope Garden

Our 2-hectare garden is constantly changing. This year, we look back on the days of the heavy rains that created an enchanted forest with pumpkins hanging from trees and maracuyá creeping faster than it could be harvested. But after a couple winters with less rain than expected, Rio Muchacho is a bit thirsty.

That’s not to say, however, that we can’t cultivate crops that can survive without the occasional torrential downpour. Though May through December is blanketed with clouds that give only mist, the weather is still as humid as ever, which allows for a wide range of leguminous crops, such as flowering bean plants with vines that wrap around whatever they can get their tendrils on and tall-standing okra that alone could feed us daily. A big part of cultivating land is learning about what the land prefers. In our unique climate of both wet and dry tropical forest, banana trees, papaya, coffee and other tropical crops thrive with little attention, as do root crops such as yucca, ginger and turmeric.

But where the weeds grow untamed, dropping their seeds when pulled and popping up faster than the carrot sprouts we sow with love, baby tomatoes and lettuce that we love so much won’t survive like strong banana stalks. So, to give our more intensive crops a chance, we are working daily to renovate an area that, until now, we call the “hache” as it corresponds with the easternmost plot of our 2 hectares, the “H” section on our map.

The Hope garden, as it is now called, is Rio Muchacho’s newest garden experiment. There we have been implementing rows of bamboo beds in which we planted tomato, eggplant, pepper, basil, lettuce and other greens. In between we have rows of pineapple, which in less than a year will be producing more fruit than we have mouths to feed.

The most important members of our new garden, however, are seven happy ducks. Our ducks, along with a few chickens, help keep weeds under control and, hopefully, have been working on keeping the snail population at bay. To make sure the ducks don’t accidentally step on baby lettuce or tomato, we fenced the cultivated area with recycled materials so they can walk around a corridor like guards, catching any snail en route to munch on plant leaves and stems.

With the help of our workers, volunteers and interns, the Hope garden is a project to revive the soil with the droppings of our feathered friends, nutrient-rich compost and crop rotation. We visit daily with jugs of water and our best intentions for a healthy earth.

Check back soon for updates about our ongoing projects!

Celine, our sustainability intern, cradles one of our ducks on a cloudy afternoon in the garden. At the time this photo was taken, the garden only had 3 vegetable beds. Today, we have seven beds and are working on adding three more!

Permaculture Experiments: Combining Art with Agriculture

The entrance to our garden has been beautified by an herb spiral.

 In our spiral we planted rosemary, aloe vera, basil, jamaica and more.

In our spiral we planted rosemary, aloe vera, basil, jamaica and more.

An herb spiral is not only a great way to pack more plants into less space, but it is also an aesthetically appealing permaculture design. Herb spirals are usually designed with stone and utilized when there is not much space for gardening. However, when a group of volunteers and interns noticed that there was an abundance of mostly hollow bamboo pieces left over from a bamboo construction workshop that Rio Muchacho hosted in early June, they decided to make a permaculture art project.

These pieces were carried up to the garden, where a circular pit of earth was loosened so each of the 100 pieces could be buried about half way to secure them in ascending height into the shape of a spiral. Our design is about 1 meter in diameter with a soil ramp spiraling up the middle.

At the center of the spiral, the highest in elevation, we placed large rocks, then soil, then dry earth, then a mixture of compost and earth. The purpose of the layers is to work with gravity and ensure that water drains freely to all levels of the spiral, which in turn creates different moisture zones: a drier zone at the top, perfect for herbs such as aloe vera, lavender and rosemary and a moist area at the bottom, ideal for moisture-loving plants such as mint and chives. Herbs are to be planted in the spiral according to their needs, with the sun-loving herbs like basil placed to receive the sun at its strongest, and herbs that require more shade placed strategically to receive less sun throughout the day.

The spiral also helps conserve water. Some of the bamboo pieces serve as cups to collect excess water that does not stream down the ramp when watered from the top. In the future, we plan to plant flowers inside some of the bamboo cylinders!

Here at Rio Muchacho, we are always experimenting with nature and permaculture. Follow our blog to learn more, visit to enjoy some of our many tour options, or better yet, be a volunteer!  

The spiral is dedicated to our former gardener and resident, Franklin, who was lost during the earthquake.

Farm Cycles and a Shout Out to Julie

Life on the farm unfolds in a series of interrelated cycles. The morning symphony of hungry farm animals eventually softens, as the lights dim and stars appear, into the smooth sounds of insect improvisation. Our food-scraps find their way from our bowls to the bowels of pigs and eventually back into the soil, where new life sprouts and continues its circuitous journey back to the kitchen, then the table, and finally (much to our delight) our tummies. There are lunar cycles and seasonal cycles, nutrient cycles and water cycles. Many of these cycles are driven by the sheer force of the Earth making its elliptical trek around the sun. A few, however, gain momentum through the push of human hands working in unison to keep the precarious top of life on the farm spinning.

These hands represent another farm cycle, the never-ending flow of people coming and going. Some visitors cycle through for only a short time. Others have the good fortune of staying long enough to put down a few roots and become part of a unique and multi-cultural social circle. Often, there is a longing, among long term volunteers, to be able to bind the hands of time and bring this revolving cycle to a stop for a time or two, if only to sit and chat a bit longer to those who come through our doors. But this is a silly desire, one no more easily fulfilled than that of delaying the start of day or denying a pig its food.

Every once in a while, though, the human cycle spins such that individuals do pop back into our lives from time to time. For us, it’s always nice to be remembered, and to know that something about life on the farm has taken root in one’s heart to such a degree that even the torrent of time can’t remove it.

We’d like to dedicate this post to Julie, who took the time to piece together a lovely care package and send it our way. Thank you. We miss you, but think of you every time we share with newcomers the story of how you always imagined each shovel of stinky manure as the start of a verdant new plant. 

Straight from the Volunteer's Mouth: A Word from Tamás

The following piece was kindly provided by Tamás, one of the farm's long term volunteers. He hails from Hungary and plans to spend the next six months learning the in's and out's of life on Rio Muchacho. 

It's quarter past eight – it's already totally dark. We have finished our dinner with the volunteers in the open-air, bamboo and cane covered dining room. Night insects play their nocturnal symphony all around. None of us has checked e-mail, Facebook, or WhatsApp for at least five days; what is more: we have not even received or made a cellphone call. However we are indeed quite well. ☺ If we have tourists staying, we spend time listening to each other's experiences, adventures or different new ideas of sustainability; if it's just us the longer-term volunteers, then it's a normal, relaxed evening spent chatting about what jobs we had during the day or whose turn it is to wash the dishes. One of us is usually making popcorn, a popular Ecuadorian snack, on the old stove . Maybe it will serve for a movie (also open-air) if one still fits into our evening. In this isolated silence with these several people I feel as if I work at a space station here at Río Muchacho farm. I do have community with my fellows and I do care about real-world things all my days here.