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Environment

Europe works on reducing its human waste

World Toilet Day lauds the humble latrine on November 19. But with the planet’s resources becoming scarcer and conventional toilets using so much water, EU authorities and consumers are seeking greener toilets.

Monique Vierendeel and her husband Ivan Vanhaecht sell composting toilets in Belgium. Their products completely eliminate the need for water or sewage systems.

The couple import most of their toilets from Sweden, where composting toilets have been on the market for 30 years, and sell them throughout Europe.

"In Sweden you can buy them everywhere," Vierendeel told DW. But in Belgium, she says people "still don't know they exist."

A new approach

Most composting toilet systems let urine evaporate through a pipe to the outside world. At the same time the modern installations use a small amount of electricity to mix the faeces into what's sometimes called "humanure." The substance needs to be removed once a month. After storing it outside for one year, it is then safe to be used like any other fertilizer in the garden, as compost.

A self-sufficient toilet housing for composting human waste. (Photo by Berger Biotechnik)

A modern, self-contained compost toilet

This is attractive not just in places like rural Africa or Asia that don't have sewage systems, but also for anyone wanting to reduce dependence on public utilities in Europe too.

Right now Vierendeel and Vanhaecht only sell about two of these toilets per month. But they say they're getting more and more inquiries from young people who want to live a sustainable life.

"It's like closing the circle," Vierendeel explained. "We eat what comes from the soil, then we put what we have eaten into this toilet. And it turns into something to improve the soil."

Forgotten problem

Sanitation experts agree: the reason why more people aren't dealing more with issues surrounding the humble toilet, is due to the fact that few of us are comfortable talking about what should be done with human waste. The UN's Special Rapporteur for Sanitation and Clean Water, Catarina de Albuquerque, stated the problem bluntly: "Nobody likes to talk about s--t."

UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, gives a press conference in 2011. (Photo credit should read SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Catarina de Albuquerque wants people to recognize that improved toilets will impact global health

De Albuquerque says that's a big problem for efforts to solve sanitation issues, across the world. "Politicians are proud to speak about water," she said.

"They are proud to be seen in front of a water source, it's nice and it's something positive and beautiful. When it comes to sanitation you need more determination, you need maybe more political courage," De Albuquerque said.

Helping consumers go green

But, the European Commission has been talking, and doing something, about it. Together with toilet manufacturers and environmental activists, the commission has helped establish new guidelines encouraging toilet manufacturers to sign-up for "ecolabels" - a voluntary certification on greener models that, for example, use water more efficiently.

Commission environmental spokesperson Joe Hennon says that consumers need to understand that "by 2030 the world is going to be seriously deficient in water." He says habits have to change and governments can help guide that change gently.

A row of primitive outdoor toilets without running water, latrine, WC. (CTK Photo/Rene Fluger)

Composting toilets have come a long way from the simple latrine

"We don't want to regulate every detail of people's lives because it's tedious and expensive,” Hennon said. But the commission does want to "encourage people to buy greener products, use less energy and less water. If we can do that by voluntary means, all the better."

Blanca Morales, who works as the eco-label coordinator for the European Environmental Bureau and the European Consumers Organisation, said eco-labeling is working.

"Even producers that do not apply for the ecolabel use it as a benchmark to improve their products - and that's also driving the market," she said.

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