November 19th is World Toilet Day and toilets are on the move. The World Toilet Summit is in Melbourne, Australia this year but from Rwanda inmates to billionaire Bill Gates, humanity everywhere is opening a more enlightened dialog about what happens after we take a dump. When the United Nations recognized World Toilet Day in 2013, all 193 member countries affirmed that sanitation is a basic human right.
The man who warmed the seat of World Toilet Day is Jack Sim, a profound and hilarious guy from Singapore with an uncanny ability to give people permission to mobilize themselves for the greater good. In his TED Talk*, Jack explains that on his fortieth birthday he realized he was halfway through the eighty year life expectancy of an average Singapore man. After calculating that he had 14,600 days left, he says, “I gave up playing golf, gave up playing computer games, and gave up watching television.” Having earned enough money to live comfortably, Jack decided to apply himself to social improvement and selected sanitation because it’s a huge problem with the extra obstacle that we’re trained never to talk about it, and he says you can’t solve what you won’t acknowledge. Starting with nothing but his personal charisma and a sense of humor he created the World Toilet Organization (WTO) in 2001 and began networking with energetic, like-minded problem solvers.
Scope of the problem
2.3 billion people have inadequate sanitation in this world of ours. More than a billion have no toilet at all and practice open defecation. In India about half a billion people don’t use toilets. The stuff runs into the water supply. Over 90 percent of India’s water supply is contaminated by feces. The causes are part poverty, part government indifference towards the poor, and part cultural bias against latrines in rural India because in the old, but not dead, caste system mucking out a latrine was a job for the lowest caste. No one wants to be that person anymore. In poor countries around the world people work out local protocols where men go on one side of a road, women on the other, or men, women and children take turns going in the fields at specific times of the day. If you’re thinking, “Eww! they’re gross.” hold that thought. It ain’t just poor foreigners.
Forty percent of US cities report dumping raw or partially treated sewage in local waterways. In Alaska the official count is 3,300 households using honey buckets, and about twenty percent of rural households lack running, piped in water. With the possible exception of Anchorage, ours is the only American state where you could ask an honest audience, “How many here have taken a dump outside?” and everyone would raise their hand. Here in Southeast Alaska hundreds of boats throw or pump slop overboard—including liveaboards in every harbor near you. There are still outhouses and float houses dumping into remote waters and there’s enough open defecation in the woods behind popular fishing spots, like Juneau’s False Outer Point during king salmon season, to make a Mumbai rat do the Fandango.
Consequences of the problem
Diarrhea can kill a child in three days. The world Health Organization says it kills about 800,000 children a year, more than one child death in ten. Disease from poor sanitation stunts mental, physical and economic development. Average height of a seven year old Nadia, Bengali child is the same as the average four year old child in surrounding countries that have improved sanitation. Clean tap water alone won’t fix things because without a toilet the child will contaminate it with filth from the street on his feet and hands. Serious lung and skin diseases thrive in that environment.
Without toilets or clean water, girls typically go to school less often than boys because they have to carry water or watch younger kids while mother gets water. When they begin menstruating, girls drop out of school. Women and girls are at additional risk of injury, snake bite or attacks going out in the fields in the dark to squat.
Solutions and successes
Innovators have realized that governments can’t or won’t do this alone, and even where they do, it doesn’t work unless local people buy into it so they have to make toilets desirable. They do this by:
1) Raising awareness with tactics like: World Toilet Day, the Toilet Summit, the Big Squat (get a crowd to squat take a selfie and put it on social media), the Urgent Run, and putting out a plate of crap and a plate of food so people can watch flies feeding back and forth.
2) Bucking cultural norms: One Indian newlywed, who’d always used a latrine at home, was told by her mother-in-law to go in the field at four in the morning. After three days the young woman left—which was almost unheard of so it caused an uproar—but she got her toilet and now she advocates for other women to do the same.
3) Local muscle and shame: Dr. PB Salim’s goal was to make Nadia the first totally open defecation free place in India. He actively used schools, women’s groups (who often engineered and built the toilets), faith based groups, and village elders who would patrol neighborhoods at four in the morning and catch open defecators in the act and give them a good old fashioned shaming.
4) New tools: one project created a screw auger to clean out latrines without someone having to climb in and muck it out by hand.
5) make it pay: one group has set up permanent training centers where landless men and women receive training as masons and plumbers. Once trained, their earning potential increases 300 to 400 percent. Women who sell toilets earn a commission.
6) Empowerment: One project in India has reached 400,000 people in over 1,200 villages. In formerly toiletless areas where less than 10 percent of girls and less than 30 percent of boys, stayed in school, now almost 100 percent of boys and 90 percent of girls stay in school. Whole communities are healthier.
7) Saving money: Human waste as fertilizer is equivalent to pig manure in nutrients and our urine is loaded with nitrogen and phosphorus. There are still issues with killing all the pathogens. It’s a work in progress, but innovators believe that humanity can radically curtail dependence on fossil fuel based fertilizers with a handy supply of human fertilizer.
8) Saving more money: Human waste is being used as fuel. Prisons in Rwanda get 75 percent of their cooking fuel from prisoners’ waste. Rose George points out that this fuel is free, inexhaustible, and saves forests and other fuel sources.
9) Making something that works better: Waterless composting toilets like ‘Nature’s Head’ have improved to the point that people are pulling out traditional boat toilets and installing the dry toilets. These are safer because they don’t need through-hull fittings that can leak.
10) The Prepper Movement (if you’ll pardon the expression) has embraced the simple toilet seat on a 5 gallon bucket. Waste is layered with sawdust or dried peat then composted. Joseph Jenkin’s book, The Humanure Handbook, is free online. It describes how to manage your doo for sanitary, efficient, no-smell, off the grid relief. Other innovators like David Omick are upping the game. Omick’s 3 Barrel Composting Toilet System web page walks you through the whole process from setting up the barrels to ‘his and hers’ urine diverters. The barrels are completely contained so there’s no worry of leakage into the environment before the compost tests pathogen free.
Juneau toilets today
Compare all of the above to our local sewer system that most of us use (people away from the pipes use septic tanks and leech fields) and that works so reliably we hardly think of it. There are 140 miles of sewer pipes in town that haul sewage powered by a combination of gravity and 45 pump (lift) stations. When you flush, the package travels down your drain, out to the street and into whichever series of pipes heads most directly to one of Juneau’s three sewage treatment plants. The Juneau-Douglas TP is on Thane Road. Mendenhall TP is by the Airport Dike Trail. The Auke Bay TP is at the head of the Bay. A Douglas poop, for example, goes down pipes towards the JD bridge, then crosses Gastineau Channel through a large pipe inside the bridge. On the Juneau side the waste gets a boost from a pump station near the Coast Guard dock then travels under the channel in a large pipe to the Thane Road TP. Can you flush some chili down a toilet, then jump in the car and beat it to Thane as it travels along the pipes a few feet under the road? Am I the only one who wonders these things?
At the treatment plant, an ‘auger monster’ tears up inorganic solids, like stuff people shouldn’t flush down toilets: clothes, plastics, garbage, etc, then separates and removes them with an auger for landfill disposal. From there the organics are separated from liquids, by settling through clarifying tanks. The sediment collected on the bottom is wrung out with a belt filter press which leaves a product like wet corn flakes. The clear liquids, with sediments removed, are shot with UV lamps to sterilize pathogens. Then the liquid is discharged into nearby waters. The solid corn flakes are barged to a land fill down south. In 2019 a new dryer goes online that will substantially reduce the weight and volume of the solids and reduce shipping costs.
There’s a worldwide race to reinvent the toilet and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a highly visible part of that. They’ve invited some of the best and brightest minds to a toilet building competition. Rather than striving for something people can use until they can get traditional sewer systems, these innovators are after small, decentralized, on-site home sewage treatment that uses little or no water. They want the toilet equivalent of cell phones, which revolutionized communications for places that couldn’t afford stringing and maintaining hundreds of miles of wires. Imagine what that would mean to Bush Alaska communities.
The contest criteria are that the toilets have to kill all pathogens, including the eggs and cysts, and they have to be affordable for poor people—less than five cents per day to operate. So far the first goal is met and the innovators are closing on the second. There is even talk of composting toilets that produce more energy than they use.
Fellow citizens of Planet Woodshed, this November 19th get excited when nature tells you it’s time to take the hobbits to Isengard. As you contemplate the excellence of your throne put your creativity where your backside is.
Bonus limerick from my childhood
In days of old, when knights were bold, and toilets weren’t invented,
they dropped a load, right in the road, and walked away contented.
*TED Talks are thousands of 10 to 30 minute presentations by interesting people with all sorts of innovative ideas in action. This article is mostly based on information in the following talks:
The taboo secret to better health-Molly Winter
Better toilets better life-Joe Madiath
Let’s talk crap, seriously-Rose George
Sanitation, a basic human right-Francis delos Reys
The surprising truth of open defecation in India-Sangita Vyas
The amazing power of toilet innovation-Brian Arbogat
Making India open defecation free-PB Salim
Why we need to talk about shit-Jack Sim