design technology waste

Five alternatives to the flushing toilet

For most of us, the standard flushing toilet is the most basic of technologies. Because every house we’ve ever lived in has one, it’s almost impossible to imagine that one can do anything other than flush away human waste. If we have experienced an alternative, it’s likely to have been a primitive and stinky one that only made us value the flushing toilet even more.

But as I’ve explained before, the flushing toilet is a dumb technology. It relies on huge and expensive infrastructure. It treats something that could be a useful resource as if it has no value, and it wastes vast amounts of water. And not just any water. The water I flush my toilet with is drinking water grade. Why bother to purify it only to pee in it later?

It’s also an old technology. It was the Romans that came up with the idea of shuttling waste away with running water, and the Victorians that perfected it. Even if you’ve got this toilet, which has an SD card slot so that you can upload “a playlist or welcome message”, you’re still basically using a two-thousand year old idea. Can’t we do any better?

There are other toilet technologies out there, and they’re important. There are 2.5 billion people without adequate sanitation, and while all of them will get a toilet eventually, the chances are that it won’t be a white porcelain thing like the one in my bathroom, least of all one with an SD card slot. It might be something more like one of these five alternative approaches.

Make compost
There’s no such thing as waste in the natural world. Everything gets recycled, and nutrients put back into use. So the first and most obvious thing to do with human waste is recycle it into compost. Of course, it has to be safe and clean and hassle-free, and there are plenty of alternative toilets that are all of those things. Envirolet is one company that makes composting toilets.

Feed the tigers
Wild animals don’t have toilets, but somehow the world isn’t filling up with poo. So how could we replicate the natural conditions of a forest floor and use it to deal with our own waste? Enter the tiger worms. This is essentially a composting system too, but that uses composting worms to break down solids and process them faster. These toilets already exist, but Sanitation Ventures are working on one that looks and functions like the kind of white bowl object that we know and cherish.

Dry it out
In warmer climates, the dehydrating toilet makes a lot of sense. It’s a system that uses air-flow and natural heat to kill pathogens and dry waste until it becomes a benign material that can be dug into the soil. They are waterless and require no energy.

peepoo-bag-how-5Bag it up
PeePoo is a response to a different sort of toilet culture. In many developing world urban areas, you don’t have a toilet, and neither can you dig a pit – it’s too densely built up to do that safely, with so many houses so near each other. Instead, people do their business in a bag. That is then thrown out with the rubbish, or rather antisocially, lobbed over the fence in what is known in Kibera as the ‘flying toilet’. So PeePoo sell people hygienic toilet bags. It’s a one-time use plastic bag with a secure tie. The bag creates the chemical conditions to kill any germs in the waste in a few days, and then it can be composted. To encourage people to bring their poo in for recycling, you buy the bags for 3 shillings and sell them back full for 1 shilling.

Microwave it
As it is broken down by bacteria, poo produces gas, and this can be tapped for energy. I’ve already written about LooWatt in Madagascar, so here’s another one. A team at Delft University of Technology have created a toilet that uses microwaves to activate plasma gasification. The gas is then stored in a fuel cell for electricity, while excess heat is re-used to dry waste. Do not try this at home.

In the West, our sanitation system is a big expense. The alternatives here turn waste into a resource, thus into business opportunities and a much more viable model for developing countries. The toilets themselves start the process, so nobody gets the medieval job of shoveling other people’s poo. Looks like the future to me.

15 comments

  1. High time this technology became history. Here in Sweden there are so many places that are not on main drainage that there has been quite a lot done to deal with the issue, more or less successfully.

  2. Of course the waste in developed countries isn’t just dumped. Large scale processing results in sewage sludge that is reused in agriculture or as fuel. So what is outlined above are probably intermediate technologies until those countries are more fully developed when economies of scale make a western model more cost effective.

    1. In Australia (a Western developed country) I think most of the large cities are just dumping that sewage sludge out to sea.

  3. It only became illegal to dump sewage in the sea in 1998 in Britain, so we haven’t actually been doing this very long. We use about three quarters of recovered sludge on agricultural land as biosolids, but it has to be given away free as nobody really wants it. Many other developed countries or regions still ban biosolids for agriculture, which means they get landfilled, used in landscaping or just endlessly stockpiled.

    Some of the above are intermediate technologies (bags, for example). But I don’t think we should see our current Western system, even one that gets as far as re-using waste, as the inevitable end goal. The infrastructure is very expensive, and very disruptive to retrofit at scale. In areas of water stress, flushing toilets are just a bad idea.

    We need to think more creatively about it – and of course people don’t want to think about it. That’s the joy of the flushing toilet, it puts distance between us and our own poo quickly and easily. What we need are systems that are just as convenient and tidy, but that use less or no water and very little infrastructure.

    1. You allow a proper free market in these things and as long as people are charged the market prices then we can leave it to sort itself out. The ultimate methods used are less important than the end result.

      But I would say that you disregard economies of scale at your own peril. Things are often the way they are for a reason.

      1. Sure, and all of these systems are competing in a free market for sanitation ideas. The very fact that these ideas exist shows there’s a demand for alternatives to the flushing toilet.

        Western style sewerage will work for some. It won’t work for others – like places with water shortages. It’s not practical everywhere, and there is growing interest in cheaper and more sustainable options.

  4. I wish it weren’t illegal to take a dump in a plastic bag and sling it into the sky – having the bag of Earth-fertilizing feces romantically land wherever the laws of physics take it, be it in my neighbors’ pool, in through the open window of their car, or the playground monkey bars across the street. Til the day comes when one can practise the poo slining arts without consequence, it’ll have to stay an act reserved for the early hours, permitted by the veiling shadows of night.

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