Picture a toilet. Is it made of porcelain, perhaps? Does it have a water-filled bowl to collect the waste? Is the waste then flushed into a sewer system?
Does the toilet you imagined have a tank, fed by indoor plumbing? Does the tank hold clean water that is used to refill the toilet bowl?
If you pictured something like this,
chances are that you live in a part of the world where water is relatively plentiful. It’s a fair bet that you have indoor plumbing. And probably all of your neighbours do, too.
Flush toilets are a familiar part of everyday life for many. However, some areas of the world lack the resources to support flush toilets.
India’s water crisis makes flush toilets an impractical solution for the country’s sanitation needs. While flush toilets need no electricity to operate, their water requirements would be impossible to meet.
In addition, less than 15% of sewage in India is currently being treated. Adding yet more sewage to the overburdened waterways would hardly improve the state of sanitation in India.
Although many of us consider the flush toilet a given, there are over two billion people in the world today who do not have any sort of toilet. They don’t have a flush toilet, a pit latrine, or any sort of fixture with waste collection.
Instead, their toilet facilities are open areas. In fields. Near rivers.
This practice leads to stunted growth in 39% of India’s children. It has a detrimental effect on maternal and new-born health. It means lower life expectancy.
173 people are defecating in the open for every square kilometre in [India]. That ratio would be the same as 500 people having to defecate in the open in the Square Mile of the City of London, or 15,000 people in Manhattan, New York City. Open defecation leaves communities filthy and children ill and undernourished.
– WaterAid.org, It’s No Joke: The State of the World’s Toilets 2015
In these dire circumstances, punctuated by bleak statistics, innovations in toilet technology represent new hope. These innovations could be solutions to some of India’s worst sanitation issues.
Some recent toilet innovations have focused on the separation of liquid and solid waste, which can each be reclaimed for different purposes.
Using treated, dried faecal matter for fuel is nothing new. But in the past few years, research has shown that urine can be processed and reused for various purposes, including generating low levels of electricity. In addition, the potassium, phosphate, and nitrogen content of human urine can be recycled into fertiliser.
Shrinking global phosphate reserves drive the need to find a sustainable source of phosphate and other plant-nourishing minerals. Urine certainly fits the bill as a sustainable, renewable resource.
Like urine, reclaimed solid waste can be used as fertilizer. Once treated and dried, it can also become fuel. This fuel can be used to produce electricity.
In addition, treating and then recycling the waste means keeping it from contaminating India’s waterways. Since human waste is the single largest source of waterborne disease, recycling the waste will reduce disease.
Stopping the Spread of Disease…by Design
Disease prevention is critical in toilet design. Pit toilets, which take advantage of gravity and require the use of little or no water, often spread diseases because they leave human waste open to insects. These insects spread bacteria and pathogens from human waste into food and water supplies.
Pit toilets with a concrete slab, while more stable than a simple hole in the ground, can still be highly unsanitary. Without a means of sealing off sewage, disease will continue to spread as widely as it has with open defecation.
SaTo—the Safe Toilet
American Standard’s Sanitary Toilet Pan (SaTo) was designed to fit into existing concrete-slab pit toilets. This eliminates the need to rebuild the entire latrine.
SaTo uses a simple but effective mechanism to isolate waste: When a small amount of water is poured into the pan after use, the water pressure causes the trapdoor in the pan drain to open. This allows the urine or faecal matter to slip down into the pit. The trapdoor immediately rises up and seals again, preventing insects such as flies and mosquitos from accessing the waste material in the pit.
This simple innovation—a fairly low-tech mechanical trapdoor—greatly lowers the chances that insects will spread disease from human waste in the pit latrines.
Reinventing the Toilet
Some inventions, like American Standard’s SaTo, are add-ons to existing toilet designs. Generally, they make an improvement to the older concept.
Such add-ons can be integrated with existing units with less effort and cost than complete replacements. However, they often hearken back to older technologies, and ingrained ways of thinking.
Imagine what can be achieved when designers are challenged to reinvent the toilet completely from scratch.
The Cranfield Nanomembrane Toilet, recently highlighted on LEAF Society’s Facebook page, holds the promise of bringing household sanitation to areas without electricity, running water, or a sewer infrastructure. The Nano Membrane Toilet provides its own on-board waste processing plant. Like similar systems (such as this one developed at Research Triangle Park), it recycles urine into purified water. The purified water is usable for watering plants or washing. The Nanomembrane Toilet also dries solid waste in preparation for its use as a biofuel.
Back to the Earth
Social business Toilets for People is on its own mission to reinvent the toilet. Declaring composting toilets the “only self-contained technology appropriate for flood-prone areas,” Toilets for People put its own innovative spin on composting with its invention, the Compact Rotating Aerobic Pollution-Prevention Excreta Reducer.
Also known by its acronym, the Crapper, this composting toilet was purpose-built for poor areas.
The process is simple: The user urinates and/or defecates into the horizontally-mounted compost drum. (The drum is contained within the device, accessed through a large hole positioned beneath a Western-style toilet seat). Afterward, the user covers the excrement with dry leaves or sawdust.
Once a week, the user must spin the compost drum inside of the Crapper. The smells from the waste are neutralized by natural aerobic decomposition—and the pathogens present in the excrement are gradually eliminated by the same process.
Toilets for People’s waterless composting process reduces the waste volume by 80%, so the average user only needs to empty the drum about once every eight weeks. The waste can either be buried three decimetres deep in the ground (using wood ash as a disinfectant), or it can be used as fertilizer.
Thinking outside the Bowl
Traditional toilet technology is being revolutionised by a single-use plastic bag.
“Peepoo” is a double-layer bag, made of biodegradable plastic. Rather than being a permanent, multi-use (and multi-user) toilet, Peepoo is intended for one use only—by one single user.
Peepoo unfolds from the top, opening up into a wide funnel. The user can either hold Peepoo in one hand during use, or set it inside a bucket for hands-free operation.
Peepoople provides a supporting product, called the Kiti. The hexagonal Kiti is multi-functional: It simultaneously holds Peepoo open, stands it up inside a bucket-like structure (giving it room to be filled up), and acts as a toilet seat for the user.
Sealing up Peepoo after use is a straightforward process:
- Gather up the inner bag from underneath the funnel-like opening. (This protects the user’s hands from contamination.)
- Fold over the inner bag.
- Slip the folded inner bag back into the outer layer.
- Pull the outer bag over the inner bag completely.
- Tie off the outer bag tightly over the inner layer.
Once sealed off in this manner, Peepoo stays odourless for at least 24 hours. This gives the user adequate time to dispose of Peepoo before it starts to smell—even if Peepoo has been used overnight.
Breaking it Down
The odour-neutralizing power of Peepoo comes from urea (also known as carbamide). The Peepoo bag contains six grams of urea. The urea is broken down by natural enzymatic action when the bag is filed with urine and/or faeces.
After a month’s time, the disease-causing microorganisms found in the faeces are no longer active. This process also prevents the faecal matter captured in the Peepoo bag from generating methane gas.
The enzymatic process inside Peepoo will work whether the user washes or wipes to clean themselves off after urination and/or defecation. The used wash water or toilet paper go right inside of Peepoo with the other waste matter. Users can continue to follow their culture’s clean-up norms (or their own personal preferences) without compromising Peepoo’s biodegradability, or its pathogen- and odour-neutralizing abilities.
The biodegradable plastic used to make Peepoo is made from a renewable, non-petroleum source. Although each Peepoo is disposable, it is still environmentally friendly.
Self-Contained Fertilizer Factory
Like Toilets for People’s Crapper, Peepoo creates valuable fertilizer. Transforming the waste inside Peepoo into fertilizer takes about a month. At that point, it is safe to use to improve the soil in a garden.
The Peepoo bag layers decompose after the wastes inside the bag are treated by the enzymatic process. Therefore, there is no need to separate the fertilizer inside Peepoo from its Peepoo packaging.
For users who do not use Peepoo for fertilizer, Peepoople coordinates a collection system.
Large quantities of used Peepoos are gathered together at drop points, and then taken to a temporary holding area. At the drop points, users are compensated a small sum. This encourages them to continue to turn in their used Peepoos.
Four to six weeks are then allowed to pass from the time of drop-off. During that time, the pathogens in the collected Peepoos are neutralized by the natural enzymatic action inside the bag. At the end of that time, the collected used Peepoos are given to nearby farms, to be used for fertilizer.
Safety and Dignity
Aside from its low economic cost and positive ecological impact, Peepoo offers privacy and dignity to users—in a way that public toilet blocks cannot.
Women ordinarily have to go outside to try to find a secluded spot to relieve themselves (and risk falling victim to sexual harassment or abuse). Instead, they can use Peepoo in the privacy and safety of their own homes. The odour-neutralizing technology means that these women can wait until daylight to discreetly dispose of Peepoo.
Children, also, can have the comfort and safety of using Peepoo at home. People who are physically challenged or ill can use Peepoo indoors. This saves them the burden of having to go elsewhere to relieve themselves (especially if they have mobility issues).
In addition to the Kiti, Peepoople offers another supporting product, called Yizi. Yizi is a privacy tent to use in conjunction with Peepoo. Yizi could be especially important for those living in temporary and overcrowded shelters, such as refugee camps.
At present, Peepoo has been tested and used in ten different countries across the world. Although it has not reached India yet, it has fared well in neighbouring countries.
Among users polled in Kenya, 93% wanted to keep using Peepoo after their very first try. One hundred percent of Haitian families who had tried Peepoo wanted to continue using it. The same was true for all the families in Sindh, Pakistan, who used Peepoo in the aftermath of floods.
With its waterless technology, self-contained waste treatment, and portability for privacy, Peepoo may also be a good fit for India’s sanitation needs and concerns.
Many Possible Solutions
Human waste management is an ongoing problem. Widely-accepted toilet technology (such as the flush toilet) is often impractical. Infrastructure issues, poor hygiene and sanitation practices, and water scarcity mean that designers cannot rely on designs developed for very different environments.
In order to find sanitation solutions that truly meet India’s needs, inventors and designers must be tremendously creative. This might mean refining an older technology, like the composting toilet—or taking toilet fixtures entirely out of the human waste management equation.
Not every new invention will revolutionise sanitation in India. Some innovations are stop-gap measures, rather than paradigm shifts. That said, these inventions can still safeguard health and improve quality of life.
Whatever shape these inventions take, all of them are developed for an undeniably important purpose: improving and saving the lives of millions.
Michelle Baumgartner is a freelance writer and editor. One of her current projects is an internship with LEAF Society. Michelle’s company, StellaWriting LLC, provides blogging, online content, and marketing materials for businesses and nonprofit organizations.