It’s not just about Metallica and Dolly – as well as a music festival with a worldwide reputation, Glastonbury is a flagship for all aspects of festival culture. This year Michael Eavis’s enduringly popular gathering of the festy clans achieved a world record to make environmentalists cheer – the largest number of compost loos ever provided at a single event.
Anyone who’s been to a festival knows the state of the toilets can dominate conversation more than the weather, especially if they’re bad, and portable loos are notorious. Being enclosed in a sun-heated plastic box with the necessary chemicals is unpleasant even when it’s clean, and most of us have at some time been confronted with one that’s blocked and over-full. The seasoned festival-goer will typically be found shadowing the cleaners hoping to nab a toilet they can bear the thought of sitting on.
Glastonbury has used portable loos for more than 20 years, but there were just 150 this year, and the uber-festival now sees them as “a thing of the past”. “Frankly they are not up to the job,” sanitation manager Jane Healy told the Independent recently. “They don’t work in our particular high-intensity environment, partly because the experience is so unpleasant that many people don’t want to touch the plastic, so they don’t flush.” Hence the rise of the “long drop” alternative, with cubicles open to circulating breezes. You could still find them from 500 yards with your eyes closed, but compared to the stench from a bank of overfilled portable loos, they’re positively pleasant, and at least offer the potential to spread the ‘muck’ on Worthy Farm land later.
Meanwhile, at the tiny festivals, many of us have found the compost loos on offer something of a revelation. In most cases the motivation for offering them rather than chemical toilets has been ideological, but with the addition of a little care and attention to detail (Buddhafield take a bow) they have often also proved more pleasant to use.
But compost loos have always been regarded as impractical for a 200,000-ticket event. Enter Aussie environmental scientist Hamish Skermer, who, with his company Natural Event, intends to establish the viability of compost loos as a large-scale solution. Hamish, who began by creating the compost toilets for Victoria’s festival of Folk Rhythm and Life, has been instrumental in converting several entire festivals, including establishing site-wide, permanent compost loos for 12000-capacity Rainbow Serpent, also in Victoria. Conquering the bigger UK scene was an obvious next step.
Natural Event facilities have already been seen at festivals including Sunrise and Sonisphere, and the pleasant, attractively decorated and distinctly non-stinky toilets, which use no chemicals, no water and no electricity in the disposal process, have previously visited Glastonbury on a smaller scale. This year there were more than 1,000 across 90 locations, including near the pyramid stage, along with 2,000 long-drops. The main difference from the long-drops is that rather than sloshing around in water and urine, the poo is separated and sprinkled with sawdust, instigating the composting process and stopping it smelling. Like the festival’s food waste and associated plates and cutlery, it then becomes a nutrient-rich soil treatment which is ready to use after a year.
Many of the modular cubicle loos are assembled and decorated on site, but Natural Event can also challenge the relative convenience of portable loos with a bank of 30 cubicles mounted on an articulated lorry, as well as male and female urinals to cut down those queues, and recycling and sustainability consultancy for the whole event.
So, have compost loos finally transcended their ascetic-hippy image and been recognised as a superior alternative? It would seem so. Glastowatch forum posts on the subject, while not completely starry-eyed, almost all feature the words “loved them” or “amazing”. “MandyPants”, typically, thought those she used on the way out “amazing, considering they’d had the whole festival to get really rank. Dry seat, lots of space and no stink. More of those please!” Much of this is of course dependent on good maintenance combined with user behaviour. While early adopters are enthusiastic, some posters noticed evidence of destructive portable loo habits. As “Lou’sOtherHalf” observed, “no amount of sawdust will protect a toilet seat from a hoverer who can’t aim!” But we think Hamish’s mission, to “Change the world from the bottom up” looks fair to succeed.
Have you used these or other compost toilets at festivals? Let us know what you think.