Peter Staley built his first composting bucket toilet under the stairs of his Victorian home in a posh London neighbourhood years ago, to the horror of his family.
In Cape Town in 2018, demand for his toilets is surging as suburbanites seek out flush-free options ahead of Day Zero.
A former Royal Navy engineer turned permaculture practitioner, Staley has run three fully booked courses in the past week on how to build composting toilets. He has a long waiting list for more courses and self-assembly kits.
“We are not tree-hugging hippy farmers. Permaculture is a design science,” said Staley, who uses composted “humanure” to fertilise vegetables.
Orders for other types of waterless toilets have also rocketed. EcoSan Western and Eastern Cape manager Michele Spooner said: “In the past we would have orders for about 20 toilets over a few months from eco-minded customers who wanted to reduce their environmental footprint.
“In the past two weeks we have had inquiries for about 250 toilets and have a long waiting list.”
Middle-class Capetonians fear they might not have enough grey water to flush toilets if Day Zero comes, and are scrambling for dry alternatives.
Options like the composting model do not require service providers to take away buckets of waste — a system long used in under-serviced communities.
But people must manage waterless systems properly to avoid health hazards, said bioprocess engineer Bernelle Verster, a researcher at UCT’s Future Water Institute. She is a fan of dry toilets and installed one at her home three years ago.
At the time only a few friends and eco-activists were interested in her system, said Verster. Lately, however, she has been inundated with inquiries.
Verster, an expert in using sewage as a resource, has planted trees in her garden fertilised with her compost, which she makes in a wheelie bin. “If people are uncomfortable or afraid about composting in their garden, they should talk to councillors and neighbours about a centralised system,” she said.
Public health expert Professor Jo Barnes of Stellenbosch University stressed: “The success of any toilet option depends on the user obeying the system.”
Composting toilets could breed disease if the system was upset, failed to kill pathogens and began to stink, she warned. “Not only would you notice, but the neighbours would as well.”
The World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa warned Capetonians this week that digging pit latrines or “long drops” was problematic in urban areas. They ran the risk of contaminating the ground water supply, the group warned.
For health reasons, the City of Cape Town said it would prefer people to keep flushing with grey water rather than switch to alternative sanitation systems.
Eco-activists like Staley and his wife, Germaine, who founded the Permaculture Research Centre, are excited about promoting green toilets.
Germaine Staley said: “We have been practising this lifestyle for more than 20 years. I’m telling people not to panic. It’s like going camping.”
Peter Staley with his waterless toilet.