Composting Toilets: An Unlikely Tool for Reducing Poverty


SEATTLE — Many innovative solutions to global poverty hide in unlikely places. Among the more promising places are bathrooms. Composting toilets provide a cost-effective method for improving health, safety and dignity in a world where 2.4 billion people still lack access to a toilet or latrine.

Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene result in the deaths of 842,000 people each year in low and middle-income countries. Lack of access to a toilet is closely tied to these issues. Around 13 percent of the world population is forced to defecate in the open, a process that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “perpetuates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty.”

When used correctly, composting toilets are cost effective, waterless, pollutant-free and environmentally friendly. Composting stands apart from common waste management strategies, such as incineration of human waste and landfills, which pollute vital natural resources and spread disease. These benefits are tools for reducing poverty, as they make using the bathroom a cheap, productive and safe possibility for those living with limited resources.

One of the greatest assets of composting toilets is simplicity. The most basic variety only requires a bucket and grass, sawdust or dried leaves. Layering dry material after each use allows the decomposition process to begin, leaving long spaces of time between waste collection while the toilet still remains functional. The process ultimately produces fertile soil to be used for growing crops. Furthermore, with specialized processing, composting toilets can turn methane into biogas, a product of the decomposition process.

Unfortunately, composting large amounts of waste require expertise, and in many cases, facilities geared toward large-scale operations are hard to maintain. For this reason, many people have yet to try the product. For others, composting human waste is yet to be seen as a viable method of waste removal. However, these issues have not stopped composting toilets from becoming a realistic tool to improve sanitation in areas where it is needed most.

Different small scale movements to improve sanitation around the world are employing composting toilets in their efforts. In Kenya, the Umande Trust is fighting open defecation with composting toilets, turning methane from the decomposition process into sustainable energy while providing sanitary places to use the bathroom. The SOIL initiative has been using composting toilets since 2006 in Haiti, using the soil that composting toilets create to fuel agricultural development. Both movements are using composting toilets to fight improper sanitation caused by a lack of sufficient toilets.

Oxfam, an international poverty reduction advocate, is developing a specific kind of composting toilet using tiger worms, which turn waste into dirt. Oxfam’s mission is to employ these “tiger toilets” in places where they are needed most. Partners in the initiative have already built tiger toilets in Liberia, Sierra Leone, India, Ethiopia and Myanmar. Oxfam is currently exploring the possibility of using tiger toilets in refugee camps, where they can remain for an estimated five years without waste removal, thanks to the tiger worms.

In 2012, the World Health Organization found that $1 toward sanitation efforts has the potential to return $5.50 by lowering health costs, increasing productivity and lowering the frequency of premature deaths. This follows the upward trend of improved sanitation around the world, with a 14 percent rise in overall global sanitation since 1990. With a long road ahead of the world population living with access to a dignified place to use the bathroom, composting toilets are mobilizing efforts toward reducing poverty and providing a unique solution to an everyday problem.

Cleo Krejci

Photo: Flickr



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