Turning fecal waste into a valuable commodity.
For my first visit to Seattle, I couldn’t have been more excited. Nearly 20 hours seated in planes, several hours waiting at airports (while some of them are nice, they have a real ability to test your patience!), all to be able to gather and talk about toilets, and feces (only simulant was displayed on site: Ouf!) and sanitation at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair.
And what a critical topic!
We should never stop remembering the terrible data. More than two million people, especially among children less than 5 years old, die annually from diarrheal diseases. Some among these kids were meant to become engineers, highly prominent scientists, musicians or journalists, but they would never have this chance. Over a hundred million people suffer high-intensity intestinal helminth infections. Millions more suffer nutritional, educational, and economic loss through excreta related diseases such as schistosomiasis, cholera, typhoid.
Like me, hundreds also came to this meeting. Many are researchers, from various research organizations or universities, mainly from Europe (Austria, England, The Netherlands, and so on) and America (Canada and US). Others are entrepreneurs, managing their companies in design/commercialization of toilet-related technologies. Many funding organizations were also present, from the World Bank to the African Development bank, as well as various NGOs including Water and Sanitation for Africa. I should not forget the curious people, who just came to find out what was really happening in the nice building hosting us. And because most of these challenges occur in countries with limited financial capabilities, several African ministers and government representatives were also present. We have all been asked one question: How best can we address the tremendous sanitation challenge at a low cost?
Each one of us has an idea. Frankly speaking, some are to me, more realistic/funny than others, but everyone deserves credit for proposing something. Many proposed new toilets using less or no water or including a water recovery and reuse component powered by biogas, sun, wind and definitely no electricity. I was particularly attracted by 2 main ideas. The first one involved the use of black soldier flies larvae fed with feces and harvested when they reach maturity. Then, they can be used as a feed material for poultry (proteins) and for biodiesel production (fats). The concept is simple to put in place and does not seem to require much for maintenance. Even if I found these larvae particularly disgusting to look at, I had to admit that they can be a solution. What about the other toilet system, involving the use of a biodegradable plastic film capturing the feces and diverting the urine (no water needed for flushing)? Since the material is biodegradable, the idea is to afterwards send all to a digester for biogas generation.
One also had an idea to share on that occasion. Why not promote reuse of wastes materials? Why not add value to these products, whether they come from households, public toilets, agricultural or industrial sectors? For example, if compost is produced, it can be later used to enrich soils which will improve agricultural productivity, which should increase wealth of farmers in low-income countries, which should contribute to food security, and so on. Given that more and more people have to be fed from less cultivated areas, this can be a good thing to start with. If fecal sludge becomes a raw material, its value will increase; therefore, it will no longer be a waste, and consequently will not harm our dear planet and inhabitants as currently observed.
Fortifert: a new way forward
So our idea (Fortifert) is not a bad one. Seems the only one exhibit that clearly linked sanitation to agriculture. It also attracted a lot of people that are more interested in low cost technology.
But as I encourage reuse of waste in agriculture, I acknowledge that there are still some unknowns. For example, required application rates for various crops and soils are not yet fully established. Possible long-term impacts (e.g. in terms of emerging pollutants) if large amounts of waste are reused also need to be investigated, but this also applies to farmyard or poultry manure which shows nowadays more chemicals than before. This means that we need to speed up the research to improve food security while addressing poor sanitation.
By the way, how many minutes have you taken to read this? Multiply this number by 4 and you got the number of people who died because of poor sanitation during this period.