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The poop to compost movement

Enrique Gili June 9, 2015

Farmers need healthy topsoil to grow food. In Haiti, a nonprofit organization offers a low-tech solution to a nation facing a shortage of arable land and a sewage system in desperate need of an upgrade.

People stand beside a dry toilet. (Source: Vic Hinterlang for SOIL)
Almost 75 percent of the people living in Haiti have no access to toiletsImage: Vic Hinterlang for SOIL

Long before the devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, the island nation was beset by a laundry list of environmental woes, ranging from deforestation to a lack of clean water. Satellite images reveal the countryside is devoid of lush vegetation. After a rainstorm, Haiti appears to ooze into the Caribbean Sea, due to the lack of plant life to prevent soil erosion.

When disaster struck five years ago, the situation worsened. The earthquake displaced 1.5 million inhabitants from their homes, giving rise to improvised settlements without access to clean water or sanitation and, consequently, a public health disaster.

Unlike affluent industrialized countries, Haitians can’t flush and forget. The vast majority of the population lacks access to a working toilet. SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods), a #link:https://www.oursoil.org:nonprofit organization# founded in 2006, joined the humanitarian effort to avert a health crisis by working to provide sanitation solutions.

A nonprofit responds to the crisis

Adequate sanitation is a fundamental right, believes Sasha Kramer, SOIL's executive director.

"When you have a toilet, you completely take it for granted. It's when you don't
have access to one and need one that you understand how important toilets are to
human dignity," says Kramer.

Photo: Polluted water (Source: Letting Go of Control/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Sewage seeps into the environment unhindered and threatens to spread diseaseImage: Letting Go of Control/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Working toilets are paramount for human health too. Without them, feces accumulate near homes, and then leach into the ground, contaminating nearby bodies of drinking water. Since the earthquake, Haitians have faced an ever-present danger of contracting a life-threatening illness from waterborne pathogens. Over the past five years, approximately 700,000 residents contracted cholera from ingesting contaminated water and 9,000 people died as a result of the #link:http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/haiti/Cholera_UN_Factsheet_24%20Feb_2014.pdf:outbreak#.

By collecting human waste, SOIL wants to help combat the public health crisis. The organization operates on the premise that when no facilities exist, people will defecate where they need to, and that feces are too valuable a resource to waste. The goal is to close the loop between sanitation and agriculture.

Based on that earthy concept, Kramer and her colleagues at SOIL established a social enterprise focused on poop. In the metro areas of Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien, 370 households belong to an ecological sanitation service called EkoLakay.

SOIL receives a small fee to manage the pickup and delivery of dry toilets called urine diverting dry toilets (UDDTs) - which operate without flush water - in a vehicle dubbed the "Poop Truck."

In practical terms, UDDTs divert urine and feces into separate chambers to avoid making a putrid, stomach-turning mess. Separating pee from poop, in this manner, also makes sense since drier solids are easier to compost and weigh less, so collecting full toilets takes less of a toll on sanitation workers.

Photo: A truck loaded with white containers. (Source: Vic Hinterlang for SOIL)
Once a week, so-called "Poop Trucks" transport feces to be processedImage: Vic Hinterlang for SOIL

How it works

Kramer applies her background in ecology to accomplish SOIL's second task - a process known as "fixing." As a graduate student at Stanford University, she learned that the nitrogen cycle is a key driver of living systems. Plants can't thrive and grow without nutrients, such as nitrogen fixed in the ground. As such each week, SOIL staff collects 5,000 gallons (18,900 liters) of feces for processing at two waste treatment facilities.

Turning poop into compost involves a bit of rudimentary chemistry that requires the addition of carbon (sugarcane stalks) to create a habitat, in which microbes can feed. Waves of bacteria feast on nutrients, excreting nitrogen, phosphorus and magnesium. In turn, microbial activity generates enough heat to kill life-threatening pathogens. After a year cooking in compost bins, feces transform into nutrient-rich compost that can be safely applied to soil.

To assuage fears of contamination, SOIL tests the compost. A #link:http://www.iwaponline.com/washdev/003/washdev0030649.htm:joint study# with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed rapid die-off rates of pathogens, and after four months E.coli could not be detected in the compost bins.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the SOIL project will be taken up on a large scale in Haiti.

"Haiti has the potential to go green and provide services to sanitation to all, if the projects were structured in a good way. The question is, will Haiti, as a culture, take the experiment done by SOIL seriously," says Karsten Gjefle, director of the Norway-based eco-sanitation firm SuSan Design.

Black gold

In Haiti, as in other places around the world, compost is a valuable resource. Often referred to as black gold, the nutrient-rich product is prized for its ability to restore damaged and degraded soil to a healthy state. Gardeners and farmers in the know are willing to pay a premium for good compost that delivers results.

Photo: A storage tank (Photo: SuSanA Secretariat/ CC BY 2.0)
Human feces can help agriculture if converted into fertilizerImage: SuSanA Secretariat/ CC BY 2.0

According to Kramer, creating compost from human waste provides a low-cost alternative to imported chemical fertilizers that farmers can ill-afford.

To date, SOIL has sold 75,000 gallons (330,000 liters) of compost at $2 dollars per 25-pound (around 11 kilograms) bag to non-governmental organizations and community groups focused on reforestation and food security.

"Proud farmers come [to] us with their large fruits and vegetables. Each month it's
something new," says Jean Arnaud, a former SOIL staffer, who lives in the U.S. city New Orleans.

Global problem

But access to proper sanitation facilities is not just a problem in Haiti. Globally, 2.5 billion people do not have adequate toilets, while 1 billion defecate in the open, according to the #link:http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/2014/jmp-report/en/:United Nations#. It's a world health crisis of epic proportions. Three to five million people contract cholera each year with 100,000 to 120,000 reported deaths. Diarrheal diseases, such as cholera, kill more children under the age of five than HIV, measles and malaria combined.

Kramer says SOIL's objective is to create a service that can be emulated elsewhere to provide a safe and ecologically sound service to populations at risk.

"We're working out the kinks and testing the business model, and we're hoping to bring it to a much larger scale over the next few years," adds Kramer.