Most interventions around sanitation are focused on access to safe drinking water and improving basic hygiene standards. Maxine Perella looks at how toilet waste like faecal matter and urine could not only be captured more safely, but put to better use?
The case for improving poor sanitation is well known. According to the World Health Organisation, one in three people in the world live without a decent toilet. This lack of safe sanitation, especially in developing regions, is a major contributor to deadly and infectious diseases like Ebola and Cholera.
Toilet waste is a major part of the biocycle, yet because it is almost always handled separately from other resources, it remains underexploited. This is something that the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC) is looking to change. In 2016, the TBC ran a feasibility study to explore the potential role of sanitation in the circular economy – later that year, it published its findings which highlighted ways in which value could be maximised from what it calls ‘toilet resources’, not just at a local level but globally too.
“Let’s suppose we address the sanitation issue not by building lots of sewers, but by building a holistic biological waste system,” says Sandy Rodger, circular economy project lead at the TBC. “We built sewers a long time ago, but we’ve never got on top of the rest of the biological waste. To this day, we’re complaining about food waste. But supposing you had a system from the start that could deal with all this biological waste, what would happen then?”
Such a system could see low income countries ultimately leapfrog developed nations, Rodger explains. “Potentially, you could change the resource profile of the economy as these developing countries grow. It’s an idea that goes way beyond sanitation, but if you’re in the waste management industry, it’s a huge idea. But it does require people to think very differently.”
One clear opportunity here is to create renewable resources by combining toilet waste with other biowaste streams such as food and agricultural waste, even compostable packaging, and upcycling them into various products. The TBC study engaged 12 SMEs engaged in sanitation across low income markets. Eight of them are producing agricultural products from toilet resources and selling them into local markets including Ghana, Haiti, Kenya, Peru, and South Africa. In most if not all cases, demand is outstripping supply.
The TBC is also engaging larger corporations like Unilever and Kimberly-Clark to explore the potential for innovation and knowledge transfer. Rodger says there is strong interest from manufacturers to tap into these emerging resource streams. He emphasises that this is not just about utilising traditional biowaste outputs like energy, water and compost, but about potentially creating higher value products like animal feed, plastics, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
“What we’re trying to do is bring a much broader and deeper range of business opportunities into play,” he says. “Quite a lot of the work which has been done before within the sanitation community is extremely local in nature, and while local loops are very important … if this is going to become a serious self-funding service, we must look at
potentially feeding bigger supply chains in the food, health and consumer goods industries.”
Big Business Engagement
Kimberly-Clark’s brand portfolio is very much associated with human health and hygiene. The company’s vice president for corporate research & engineering, Pete Dulcamara, says by engaging with the TBC on this work, Kimberly-Clark could yield some valuable consumer insights into “underserved markets or regions where our products have low penetration and to use these insights to innovate new competitive offerings”.
One company that Kimberly-Clark is mentoring as part of the TBC project is The Biocycle, a South African firm which is using Black Soldier Fly larvae to feed on faecal waste and convert it into protein for animal feed, and oil that can be used for fuel and soap. Dulcamara says solutions like this can help address a key barrier of upcycling toilet waste – the ‘yuk factor’ perception.
“[The] best way to reduce the ‘yuk factor’ is by increasing the number of conversion and purification steps from toilet outlet to human utilisation,” he says. “In cities where they have tried toilet-to-tap like San Diego, it has failed, but where wastewater is purified and returned to a river or ground water or reservoir and then subsequently drawn and processed for drinking water, it has been successful.”
Another SME involved with the TBC is Ghana-based Safi Sana, a social venture which operates an anaerobic digestion facility using a mixture of feedstock – primarily blending faecal waste with other forms of organic waste such as slaughterhouse discards, food waste and catering waste. Outputs include biogas, irrigation water and compost which are all benefiting the local community.
“In terms of outputs from our process, we bring back nutrients to the local area – to farmers, and we provide energy to the grid. On a daily basis we can process about 25 tonnes of a mix of faecal and organic waste, producing about 22 hours of electricity serving between 1,500 to 2,000 households,” says Aart van den Beukel, managing director of Safi Sana Holding.
Significantly, Safi Sana’s factory in Ashaiman has public toilet facilities on site. Beukel says community involvement and education plays an important role. “The site that we now have was previously an open defecation area. We thought that if we use it for a factory, then we need to give something back. It’s intended as a showcase, to help people understand how things work.” He adds that there is also a farm on site, enabling visitors to understand the whole value chain from start to finish.
Asked how Safi Sana’s operation might be scaled up to feed bigger supply chains in the future, Beukel replies that the organisation is undertaking market research with corporates to ascertain how interested they might be in using such products. “We’re trying to figure out what they want, whether this could work for them, and what is needed to make it happen. People are still very hesitant to work with this kind of resource. We can show them that there’s no risk to it.”
Beukel adds that it’s not just about changing mind-sets when it comes to the ‘yuk factor’, but company protocols too – such as finance and procurement rules. That said, he remains optimistic. “The whole idea of resource recovery is inevitable. It makes business sense as well for corporates, so why not?”d
Mike Webster, director of WasteAid, echoes the need for more education at all levels – particularly in low income countries, where basic sanitation and waste infrastructure are often lacking.
“People are amazed and slightly horrified that their waste would be used for agricultural purposes. I find that bizarre especially when you have open defecation,” he says. “You have to get people who are respected within the community on your side, so for example, provide farmers with free fertiliser. It’s about market development and getting people to be confident in the product. If people can see that it works and no-one is getting sick, they’ll be more likely to go for it.”
Another dimension that the TBC is looking to explore is the potential to extract information from toilet waste to drive multiple health interventions. These could include informing disease prevention and control for public health, access to basic health information for individuals, and, with further insights, new opportunities in regenerative health products and applications.
Rodgers says, linking sanitation and smart data through real-time analysis of what’s going down people’s toilets is very much an emergent theme. “Is it possible to drive preventative healthcare options in communities, based on sensors somewhere in the sanitation system? These sensors might be in toilets, or the treatment plants. Is it possible to pick up the presence of pathogens, pharmaceuticals, nutrients, and from that have well-targeted action taken around disease control and nutrition?”
Dulcamara certainly sees the potential and says such data could help Kimberly-Clark serve its customers better. “What we see as waste is actually teeming with data about our health, nutrition, and disease state. Imagine toilet paper that could detect the onset of colon cancer, or a panty liner that could tell a woman if she is ovulating or pregnant, or if she has a urinary tract infection.”
“Or imagine … a sanitation system that could detect disease vectors in a community or the onset of Ebola in a village,” he concludes.