Composting toilets

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There is an increasing expectation that even rural parish churches should have toilet facilities, not least for making the building more user-friendly when holding community events such as concerts. 

Four options are available:

1. Connecting to mains water and sewage if nearby eg. Great Rissington

2. Provision of trench arches eg. Stratton. Gloucester Diocese has produced this case study which assesses the implications for waste water (sewage) disposal and offers a broad view of the options and challenges. It focuses upon rural churches based on the assumption that toilets will use water. A particular option, called a trench arch, is detailed for consideration.

3.  NatSol composting toilet eg. Great Witcombe

4. Biolan composting toilet eg. Elkstone (picture)

Biolan Composting Toilet: detailed case study

Background

The parish church of St John the Evangelist at Elkstone dates from 1160 and is Grade 1 listed. Ian Ousby’s guidebook states: “Elkstone has the best Norman church in the region.”  The PCC has often given consideration to means of outreach and in the July 2015 meeting we decided to turn an unused part of the churchyard into a wildflower meadow and provide a bench seat for visitors.  The PCC also wanted to increase the use of the parish church for hosting concerts and other community events therefore we decided to provide a toilet since the nearest facilities were over a mile away at a garage and a pub.  The PCC was happy for this project to be driven forward by Elkstone’s church wardens: Mr David Pierce despite his undergoing serious medical treatment and Mrs Chloe Darling who was newly elected in support. 

Wildflower meadow

In June 2016 a bale of hay from Clattinger, the number two Coronation Meadow, was strewed across the west end of the churchyard and about a dozen children assisted Mr Geoff Gait-Carr in making three bug-houses.

Specification of the composting toilet

A serious limitation was the lack of water supply or sewage or external electricity. Therefore, the PCC decided to construct a building from English oak that would contain a composting toilet using an anaerobic system with bark wood-shavings.  The Biolan design sits on the surface which means there’s no need for:

  • archaeological investigations.
  • digging foundations, tanks, or planning for ‘drop’.
  • a septic tank or pit.  

David and Chloe opted for the “Biolan separating dry toilet” which has these features:

  • the daily use of the toilet is tidy and pleasant  
  • the ventilation pipe leading from the toilet tank to the roof ensures the room space remains odourless  
  • the smooth plastic surfaces of the unit are easy to keep clean  
  • the seat ring is a thermal seat that feels comfortable even if the room space is chilly 
  • separates urine from solid waste in the seat part 
  • easy-to-operate batcher of bedding 
  • two separate inner receptacles inside the waste tank

The design was inspired by a fishing hut that had recently been viewed on River Colne. A timber frame construction using English oak held out the prospect that the “eco-loo”, as it was called at the time, could last for up to 200 years!  A skylight would be provided along with battery lighting activated by passive infra-red movement detector.  The urine would be stored in an external container which when emptied could be mixed with water to be used as fertilizer.  The solid waste would be stored inside the casing of the Biolan unit which when emptied could be mixed with compost or manure for application around fruit trees or roses.  

By way of preparation, Chloe Darling organised a site visit to Duchy Home Farm on 15th June 2015 which included a useful handout.

Costs and fund-raising

Our initial estimate for the work was £18k.  The project was driven forward by the church wardens: Mr David Pierce and Mrs Chloe Darling.  David submitted formal applications to many charities although with limited success. The biggest donations were received from:

  • Diocese of Gloucester (Diocesan Mission Fund) - £3k (Oct 2016)
  • Gloucestershire Historic Churches Trust - £3k (Dec 2016) and £500 (June 2017)
  • Gloucestershire Environmental Trust - £5k (Aug 2017)

Our fund-raising target was achieved thanks to generous donations by friends and neighbours in the village and others who are regular worshippers  In the end the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) requirements for a high-quality path (see below) meant that the total cost of the project came to £22k.  

Planning applications

Cotswold District Council gave their approval subject to the provision of additional natural lighting.  The DAC’s letter of 11thMarch 2016 was also favourable although some additional work was stipulated: a path for people with walking difficulties and those in a wheelchair.  The path would need to be wide enough for two people walking side by side.  The DAC also pointed out that our choice of the Biolan composting toilet would require more frequent emptying than the Natsol equivalent.  In accordance with DAC procedures a Public Notice was displayed from 20thJune to 20thJuly 2016 without anyone raising objections.

Construction

The English oak timber needed for the frame, floor and cladding was kindly donated by Liz Gudrun from Childer Wood near Ledbury in Herefordshire.  The red cedar shingles for the roof were made by Jo and Paul Morton from their woodland at Ullingswick in Herefordshire.  The carpentry and construction was undertaken to a high standard by Jim Symon who raised the frame on 24thApril 2017.  The path was laid by Ryan Brazil and various finishing tasks were done by Jim Dean.  Top soil was kindly donated by Matt Hobbs of Elkstone.  

Opening ceremony

The eco-loo was officially opened by the Bishop of Tewkesbury, the Right Revd Robert Springett on 8 June 2017 at 12.30pm.  David Pierce said: “With the increased use of the Cotswold’s parish churches for concerts and other community events, one of the problems frequently encountered is absence of any toilet facilities. These are difficult to provide because of the huge expense involved in connecting to mains water, power and sewage. We’ve overcome these problems by investing in a sustainable, green solution.”

Creationtide video

Six of the CofE’s dioceses in the South West collaborate on environmental projects.  In 2017 each diocese was asked to produce a short video showcasing an example of good practice.  In August 2017 a five-minute film was made by Sam Cavender featuring the eco-loo at the parish church of St Mary at Great Witcombe as well as the Elkstone’s wild flower meadow, bug houses and eco-loo.  The video included interviews with Chloe Darling, Carole Bury and Revd Arthur Champion who said, “It will make the church accessible, and people who would otherwise be isolated can come and join in”.  To date the video (link below) has been viewed by over 1,500 people on YouTube.

Maintenance

Mr Geoff Gait-Carr, our Churchwarden since 2017 has overall responsibility with PCC members providing support by keeping an eye on cleanliness inside the eco-loo as well as adequate supplies of paper etc.  For various reasons the PCC has not yet implemented the original idea of spreading the composted material around fruit trees and roses.  Instead of waiting a year for completion of the composting process the PCC has a contract with a local firm (“Gilders”) to empty the Biolan toilet of urine and solid deposits.  At first this was an informal arrangement costing £50 whenever they happened to be in the area.  However, in May 2019 arrangements were made for collections to be made every four months. We have also fitted another battery light activated by passive infra-red movement detector.

Overall evaluation

A year after strewing a hay bale, the western end of Elkstone churchyard had produced some orchids.  Then after two years there was a good variety of native wildflowers.  We expect there are owls out hunting at night for mice! 

The eco-loo has proven most useful during worship on Sundays and for big occasions such as baptisms, weddings, funerals and festivals such as Christmas, Easter, Harvest and Remembrance Sunday. 

It has enabled the PCC to host several special events inside the parish church:

  • Spring Concert (April 2018)
  • Commemoration of the end of World War One with readings and classical music (Nov 2018)
  • U3A choir practices (occasional) 

The eco-loo is an important part of the annual village open gardens day normally held in mid-June.  We used to hire in a portable toilet at cost of £100 for the day.

As was first envisioned the toilet is being used by casual visitors to the churchyard including hikers and cyclists.  

It has attracted a lot of interest from parish churches in the Diocese of Gloucester and far beyond.