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It's Time to Start Thinking About the Environmental Impact of Poo

There’s no way around it; we need to talk about poo. Our current methods of waste disposal when it comes to human faeces are wasteful, costly, and having a devastating impact on our planet. It’s not an easily visible impact, like mass deforestation or an oil spill, but it is significant all the same. And with a bit of persistence you can certainly sniff out the facts.

Consider this. Human beings defecate into their drinking water, flush that water away so that it can be heavily treated with potent chemicals in order to be sent back to our taps, and then drink it, or defecate into it again. Meanwhile, human faeces have to be broken down using chemicals which is an expensive and inefficient process. Some of the faeces stay in sewers which can lead to the spread of harmful diseases and pollution of soil and nearby water sources. For most people it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind, but this faecal matter rapidly becomes dangerous and pathogenic waste. We also use five or six gallons of water every single time we flush the toilet.

In some countries there isn’t even this inefficient system to deal with waste matter, partly because flush-toilets are so expensive, and partly because they use so much water. Other countries simply do not have the resources required for this model of toilet to work. There is a simple solution to all of this – we need to create a more efficient way of dealing with our poo. This idea is rising in popularity, with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently hosting a Reinvent the Toilet Fair where different nations showcased their idea for cheaper, more efficient toilet models that can be used throughout developing countries where sanitary waste disposal in a major problem. Some of the proposed toilet designs also have impressive ideas for reusing the waste matter, for example as fuel for back-up lighting fixtures, or for cleaning and recycling the used water in a sustainable fashion.

For those who want to go a step further, there are ways to safely compost your own poo from home, and this ‘humanure composting’ may be a key feature of the reinvented toilet once it has been chosen. Joe Jenkins coined the term ‘humanure’ in his book The Humanure Handbook, which looks at the impact human waste is having on our planet, and details instructions for correctly composting human faeces so that it breaks down into a manure-like matter- ‘humanure’- that can even be used as nutrient-rich organic fertiliser.  This is a very different process to applying waste matter that hasn’t decomposed onto fields, which can be hazardous to human health but is also a common practice in countries without working toilets.

As those involved in the Reinvent the Toilet Fair have recognised, to deal with human faeces sustainably we need to shift our consciousness from thinking of human waste as ‘waste’, by managing it hygienically and correctly, and reusing what is left over. Due to the increasing awareness of the wastefulness of flush-toilets and the amount of water they use, there is a growing market for composting toilets in western countries; there are various types of compost toilet available, where the faecal matter is left to break down- compost- over a two-year period. This natural process requires no fossil fuels, chemicals or consumption of other environmentally destructive components, and the end product is pathogen-free and safe enough to use on food gardens.

Compost toilets aren’t for everyone, though. Which is why in this video by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the organisation calls for new and efficient ways of dealing with faecal matter that can be implemented worldwide, for a low cost. It’s a project that will make an immense different to people’s lives all over the globe, and to the environment, and we can’t wait to see the winning design. And that’s why it’s a great time to start talking about poo.

Image Source: Jim/Flickr