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Applying The Circular Economy To Toilets Could Speed Up Global Sanitation

There’s a lot of money in people’s poop. If the developing world finds ways to harvest it as they add toilets and plumbing, it will be far ahead of us in monetizing an important resource.

Applying The Circular Economy To Toilets Could Speed Up Global Sanitation
[Illustration: Hilch/iStock; App Photo: Unsplash user Artem Sapegin]

If we think about human waste as a resource instead of as “waste,” we might get sanitation to the billions of people who need it much more quickly. Turning poo and pee into energy, agricultural manure, animal feeds, and even pharmaceutical products could create valuable income streams, making investment in sanitation infrastructure easier. Sensing for disease and ill-health in municipal or home toilet systems could also be a monetize-able business in the future.

This all comes from a report from the wonderfully named Toilet Board Coalition, an association of toilet brands, consumer groups, and non-profits like Water Aid. It looks at the potential for a “circular economy” in sanitation, where “resources” are recycled to create “self-sustaining sanitation businesses and encourage investment in sanitation, reducing dependence on public and aid funding.”

Human waste can be turned into energy in the form of biogas (using an anaerobic digester), or made into solid fuel (as in Sanivation’s business in Kenya). It can be converted to agricultural compost, organic fertilizer and soil conditioner, and you can extract water from human waste–fecal matter is 75% water, urine 95%. Another possibility is to re-harvest the nutrients in human waste by growing maggots. The maggots become maggot meal, which is then fed to pigs. A South African company is working on this last idea.

The report argues that low income countries can leapfrog more mature countries by taking up opportunities in the “biological” cycle (or biocycle), as well as the “technical” cycle (metals and plastics recycling). “We believe that enabling the biological cycle of the Circular Economy, to include toilet resources and all biological resource streams, could be the next transformative shift for low-income markets and their sustainable development,” it says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Co.Exist. He edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague and Brussels.