Compost Toilets: A Solution to the Global Sanitation Crisis

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AUSTIN, Texas — Billions of people worldwide lack access to basic sanitation, presenting a global health concern. One solution to this problem is compost toilets as a method of collecting human waste and turning it into compost. Advocates of compost toilets are attempting to reduce stigmas surrounding human excrement while improving public health and promoting sustainability.

Inadequate Sanitation

Inadequate sanitation is a global problem, especially prevalent in developing nations. According to the World Bank, 2.3 billion people lack access to properly managed sanitation. In sub-Saharan Africa, 72% of the population lacks even basic sanitation. In South Asia, this number stands at 50%. While exasperated by urbanization and population growth, this issue exists in both cities and rural areas. Improper waste management leads to health problems, including “cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.”

In many undeveloped areas, people eliminate waste through open defecation or by using pit latrines — large holes dug into the ground, covered by a slab. Pit latrines are easy to build and are inexpensive, but they have major disadvantages. Perhaps most obviously, they exude an odor, attracting flies. Because pit latrines must be located away from homes and water sources, elderly people, disabled people and those who menstruate have difficulty accessing them. Improper pit latrine construction can also cause feces and urine to flow into water sources.

According to the United Nations, 80% of wastewater worldwide is dumped into the environment, untreated. This results in 1.8 billion people drinking water contaminated with human waste. Contaminated water also damages wildlife habitats, killing aquatic life.

Compost Toilets

Compost toilets simply consist of a five-gallon bucket covered by a hinged box. From this point, composting human waste (humanure) is safe and easy. It involves these steps:

  • Deposit human waste in the compost toilet.
  • Add carbon-based cover material (like sawdust or straw) after each use.
  • When the bucket is full, empty contents into a separate compost bin.
  • Microorganisms, like bacteria, break down waste in the compost bin.
  • Compost pile reaches 40-60 degrees Celcius, killing disease-spreading germs.
  • Microorganisms, worms and bugs continue to break down the material.
  • After about one year, the humanure has transformed into soil.

Once the humanure has been composted, the compost can safely be used in agriculture. Compost is rich in nutrients and microbes, which is beneficial for plants and crops. Compost toilets have several benefits. The toilets are cheap and easy to build and they do not require running water or pipes. Furthermore, unlike pit latrines, compost toilets do not give off odors, attract flies or leak into water sources.

Compost Toilets in Action

Joseph Jenkins, the author of “The Humanure Handbook,” is a compost toilet expert. After living off the grid for 10 years and studying sustainable systems in graduate school, Jenkins developed a simple method for composting humanure. He turned his unfinished thesis into a book, gaining international attention.

In 2006, a consulting firm invited Jenkins to pilot two compost toilet programs in Mongolia. Jenkins says the team faced significant challenges due to Mongolia’s cold temperatures and scant resources. He explains that the only hammer available was a sledgehammer and all the nails were bent. Despite obstacles, Jenkins and his collaborators built 12 compost toilets with each toilet costing less than $6. The team used locally sourced materials for the construction.

Since then, Jenkins has provided training and built compost toilets in schools, prisons, villages and cities around the world. His international projects have taken place in Haiti, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and India. On several of these projects, Jenkins worked with the U.S.-based NGO GiveLove.

GiveLove Provides a Sanitation Alternative

Actress Patricia Arquette and Rosetta Getty co-founded GiveLove, which works with community stakeholders to provide education and consulting on environmentally-friendly sanitation. GiveLove started as an emergency sanitation organization supporting Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake. It has since expanded, developing long-term projects in Nicaragua, Colombia, Uganda, Kenya, India and the U.S.

GiveLove Program Director Alisa Puga Keesey estimates that over its 11-year history, GiveLove has helped communities worldwide build 1,000 compost toilets. While that number may seem small, Keesey affirms that GiveLove’s impact is about quality over quantity. GiveLove strives to provide under-resourced communities with the tools and education they need to manage their waste.

She states, “We feel that one way to decolonize development is to teach local people how to do it…. we really want to show people, really anyone can do this.” Keesey says community reception to compost toilet education has been positive. She recalls, “there’s just this aha moment when they realize they can harness the power of nature.” Keesey states that kids react similarly when GiveLove provides lessons on microorganisms and composting, showing amazement at seeing science applied in the bathroom.

The Future of Compost Toilets

Compost toilets are cheap and effective, yet, challenges linger. While compost toilets are easy to construct, someone must maintain them, which includes transporting waste and replacing full buckets. In areas without a waste collection service, this responsibility falls to community members.

Keesey also affirms that sanitation continues to be overlooked in humanitarian and environmental discussions. She says, “You can’t really talk about water scarcity and water pollution unless you want to talk directly about feces and no one wants to talk about it.”

Yet, GiveLove is not giving up. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the GiveLove team provided training in Kenya via video conferencing. GiveLove also developed a composting curriculum. To help communities better manage compost toilet servicing costs, GiveLove is piloting a program in which a community of households or landlords own public compost toilets, charging a small usage fee.

Jenkins hopes compost toilets will become more widely used, including in developed countries. Because compost toilets do not require plumbing, they are useful during natural disasters and for people who live far from cities. He says, “I think composting in general, especially with regard to sanitation, is a beginning of a new revolution for the human species.”

Only time will tell whether compost toilets become mainstream, but nevertheless, this innovative idea still stands as a creative and cost-effective solution to the global sanitation problem.

– Annie Prafcke
Photo: Courtesy of GiveLove

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