When it comes to the management of human waste, we tend to break the world into two segments: the developed world, with flush toilets, and the developing world, with little infrastructure or access to sanitation services. Solutions for the developing world are a high priority because the risks of under-performing sanitation systems – disease and death – are extremely high. But the solutions emerging today for the developing world could have important implications for resource use and waste management throughout the developed world as well. We recently had a chance to talk with representatives from two organizations bringing sanitation systems to developing economies, SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) and Loowatt, about their waterless systems that convert wastes into valuable resources—the SOIL EcoSan Toilet and Loowatt, respectively.
Since 2006, SOIL has been developing business opportunities related to providing sanitation services, using their EcoSan toilet models. Customers rent the toilet unit and pay a collector to remove accumulated wastes for composting at a centralized facility. The composted material is then sold for profit, and used to improve agriculture as well as reforestation. The solution improves health, agriculture, and the environment, while building local economic opportunities. (Learn more here.)
Loowatt similarly offers a self-contained toilet system, but the collected wastes are converted on-site into a biogas that can be used for fuel, and compost that can be used as fertilizer. Loowatt systems have been piloted in communities in Madagascar that lacked centralized collection and management of wastes, but they have been specifically designed to deliver a standard of odorless and hands-off sanitation that meets expectations of residents of Western countries. (For more information, visit Loowatt).
The concept of "leapfrogging" in sustainable development typically refers to developing nations skipping steps in technological development, jumping ahead to advanced technologies. For example, countries adopting cell phones without ever having built infrastructure for landlines. At first glance, it might seem that these toilet solutions are low-tech. But are they the more advanced option? They don't rely on billion dollar, energy-intensive wastewater facilities or similarly expensive infrastructure for transporting water to and from homes for flushing. The systems convert what can be burdensome—and hazardous—waste into resources with monetary value. And they don't require water.
The Bullitt Center in Seattle is a six-story building that uses composting toilets to meet design requirements of the Living Building Challengefor water self-sufficiency. Designers installed 10 aerobic composters in the basement where the waste accumulates and begins to break down. Material that isn't converted into carbon dioxide and water vapor is picked up monthly and taken off-site to a commercial compost facility where it is further broken down for use as fertilizer.
As pressure on water supplies intensifies and energy and fertilizer costs climb, will developed nations seek toilet solutions like those being implemented in the developing world? What infrastructure will support a shift toward waterless solutions and who will build it?