How toilet technology is overcoming the 'yuck' factor

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Social Enterprise

How toilet technology is overcoming the 'yuck' factor

Photo Credit: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

The problem is clear: many people in developing countries—especially those living in refugee camps and slums—need affordable and sustainable sanitation.

A record high of 65 million people have been displaced from their homes around the world due to conflict and persecution and urban populations are growing at an unprecedented rate—calling for innovations to improve water and sanitation in refugee camps and crowded communities.

Worldwide, 2.5 billion people do not have access to toilets or covered latrines, and 946 million people still defecate in open spaces. About 280 million people in developing countries die each year because of poor sanitation.

Improving sanitation reduces the spread of infectious diseases and promotes the dignity and safety of women and girls. Better sanitation also encourages economic development.

In 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenged universities to design toilets that could capture and process human waste without piped water, sewer or electrical connections, and transform human waste into useful resources such as energy and water—all at an affordable price. Several high-tech and cutting-edge toilet designs were submitted but none of the models offered a low-cost solution to the global sanitation crisis.

High-tech toilets could provide feasible sanitation solutions in the future—but, right now, people are in dire need of simple and affordable toilets that are quick and easy to set up and operate.

“If we embrace low-tech toilets, we’ll be on the right track to getting 2.5 billion people one step closer to a safe, clean, comfortable, and affordable toilet,” says Jason Kass the founder of Toilets for People.

What is a simple and affordable toilet? How about tiger worms in your toilet?

The tiger worm toilet

The tiger worm toilet is a no-frills latrine that uses composting worms to transform human waste into fertilizer. This simple toilet could be an affordable and sustainable sanitation solution for crowded slums and refugee camps, according to water and sanitation experts.

Tiger toilets are ideal for emergency situations because they can be constructed rapidly and inexpensively. In a refugee crisis, the construction of communal latrines for thousands of displaced people in makeshift camps can be especially challenging—but the tiger worm toilet has been extremely successful.

Oxfam installed the first tiger worm toilets in slums in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2013. They worked so well that tiger worm toilets have been installed in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Myanmar. Due to significant success, Oxfam has partnered with other humanitarian agencies to construct tiger toilets in India, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.

The superstar in the world of toilets is Eisenia fetida—the hard-working worm that converts human waste into fertilizer.

“The joy of tiger worms is that they reproduce faster with the more poo they have to feed off…so they are self-sustaining,” Andy Bastable, Oxfam’s head of water and sanitation, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.  

There is not much to building a tiger toilet. Dig a pit, fill it with gravel, woodchips, some water—and add the tiger worms.

The trouble with pit latrines is that they either need to be emptied out regularly or filled in—which requires more space. This can be a logistical nightmare for humanitarian organizations. But, the tiger worms help reduce the volume of the waste, so the toilets do not need to be emptied as frequently or rebuilt. In fact, the tiger worm toilets only need to be emptied about every five years. By the time the toilets need to be emptied, the tiger worms have transformed the waste into vermicompost—an excellent fertilizer—which can then be used to grow crops.

“Tiger worm toilets are promising but they aren’t the silver bullet to change sanitations,” Bastable said. “The winner will be a toilet technology that can be adapted to individual countries to meet the needs of a specific community.”

SOIL Toilets

Photo Credit: Vic Hinterlang/ SOIL

Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL)—a Haiti-based organization—provides communities with simple and low-cost dry composting toilets, which work well even in crowded, informal settlement communities where there is minimal infrastructure.

SOIL focuses on promoting the use of ecological sanitation, a process that uses naturally occurring microbes and heat to transform human waste into a fantastic compost. This rich compost is then used in agriculture and reforestation efforts. Through its social business model, SOIL is solving the sanitation problem—and improving Haiti’s poor soil quality.

At the moment, more than 75 percent of Haiti’s population lacks access to safe sanitation. Open defecation is a common. Haiti has one of the world’s highest rates of childhood diarrhea, which is the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5. Furthermore, Haiti has had one of the world’s largest outbreaks of cholera in recent history. Better sanitation in Haiti is crucial to improving public health and preventing the spread of disease.

“If we can take all the poop that’s making people sick right now and turn it into this really valuable resource that could be used for reforestation or for increased agricultural production, then you really take a problem and turn it into a solution,” SOIL Executive Director Sasha Kramer told The Guardian.

So how do these toilets work? Families are provided with an in-home toilet, which has a five-gallon bucket inside where waste goes. Instead of flushing with water, you cover it with a dry carbon material—usually sugarcane shavings—which keeps it from smelling and prevents flies from reaching it.

Each week, the “poop mobiles” pick up the buckets from each household and provide clean buckets with additional cover material. Then, the waste is rushed off to composting sites, where it is transformed into rich fertilizer in just six months.

At the compost sites, naturally occurring microbes go to work, heating the piles of human waste to 170 degrees, which kills the pathogens that make people sick. The final products is an odorless soil rich in nutrients that make plants grow.

“Given the natural aversion to human waste, it takes rigorous research, careful implementation and skilful social marketing to overcome the ‘yuck’ factor,” Kramer told the Guardian, “That said, we found that, in Haiti, once people are able to see, smell, and touch the final product they are more than eager to test it in their gardens,”

SOIL treats 240,000 gallons of human waste each year and has sold over 75,000 gallons of compost. The compost has been snapped up by nurseries, gardeners, farmers, and non-profits focused on reforestation efforts in Haiti. Furthermore, there have been significant economic returns for farmers growing high-value crops such as bell peppers and spinach.


Photo credit: Camilla Wirseen/ Peepoople

The Peepoo looks like an ordinary plastic bag, kind of slim and with a liner tucked inside.  In fact, it is a single-use biodegradable toilet, designed for populations without other sanitation options.

The Peepoo is a toilet that you can carry in your pocket. It can be used either indoors or carried to a private and secluded location. It can also be placed on the Peepoo Kiti, which is a small portable “chamber pot.”
After it is used, the bag is knotted and taken to a drop-off point where the user gets a small refund. A lining of urea crystals sanitizes the waste. Then, the bags are carted off to be converted into fertilizer.

After some basic training, micro-entrepreneurs can sell the bags to customers in their community. The used bags are then bought back for a third of the original price, and the waste is turned into fertilizer.

Peepoople—the organization behind Peepoo—launched in 2009 with the intention of providing a sustainable sanitation system that would improve the health and living conditions for the residents the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, while also creating employment opportunities and contributing to food security.  

One of the biggest challenges is educating people about hygiene, sanitation, and the importance of using—and correctly disposing of—Peepoo. The system has been especially successful in humanitarian efforts in refugee camps and after natural disasters.

After Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, Oxfam partnered with Peepoople to provide individuals without access to latrines with alternative sanitation solution. The Peepoo was well received by the community, and it reduced the number of people practicing open defecation, which in turn reduced the spread of disease.

The simplicity and affordability of Peepoo make it a short-term sanitation solution.

While high-tech sanitation systems are making headlines, it’s the simplest solutions that are helping people live healthier lives.

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