17 REASONS WHY WE SHOULD ALL BE TALKING ABOUT ECOLOGICAL SANITATION (ECOSAN)
1 June 2017
Here at Sanitation First, we believe that ecosan should be taking over the world of sanitation. And we think that many of you would agree with us, if only more people knew about this world-changing power of ecosan. We’re taking this opportunity to shout about why ecosan could, and should, be changing the ways we think about sanitation. So we’ve put together 17 mind-blowing reasons why we should all be talking more about ecosan.
BUT FIRST, WHAT ON EARTH IS ECOLOGICAL SANITATION?
Ecological sanitation (otherwise known as ecosan) is an approach to sanitation that sees human excreta as a valuable resource, rather than as a waste product. It recycles human excreta, and uses natural processes to transform it into a safe, natural compost and fertiliser.
All of our ecosan toilets are ‘Urine Diverting Dry Toilets’ (UDDTs). This system separates solids and liquids at source: the toilet has a special squat plate that separates urine from faeces.
In our rural ecosan toilets:
The urine is collected and is safe to be used straight away as liquid fertiliser.
Faeces are composted onsite (in a chamber beneath the toilet). Dry ash is added to the waste to speed up its dehydration. Once fully decomposed, it can be used in agriculture as a soil-conditioning fertiliser.
Our urban ecosan toilets (called ‘GroSan toilets’) are slightly different. The GroSan toilet system takes the ecological sanitation (ecosan) model and builds upon it, adapting it to the unique demands of slum environments. It is a container-based sanitation (CBS) system: waste is captured in sealable containers, which, after 28 days of decomposition, are removed and transported to an offsite compound. The solid waste containers are stored in the compound for a further 90 days and then treated using organic processes to create a commercial grade, agricultural compost. The urine is also treated to produce an enhanced liquid fertiliser.
So, what’s all the fuss about – why should ecosan be changing the world of sanitation? Read on to find out …
1. ECOSAN PRESENTS AN OPPORTUNITY TO TRANSFORM THE WAY THE WORLD APPROACHES SANITATION
Sanitation-related illness, pollution, water scarcity, soil quality, population rise, urbanisation, agricultural productivity, and food insecurity are all global issues that bridge the so-called ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ worlds. We should not see ecosan as only the solution to small-scale, local issues, but as an opportunity that could, and should, be embraced worldwide. Did you know that in the US alone, 50 billion gallons of water are treated every single day before being released back into rivers/oceans (Kramer et al. 2011:17)? That’s the equivalent to over 75,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, everyday. Imagine the energy, water, resources, and even lives that could be saved if people began to embrace ecosan as a viable, sanitation alternative.
2. ECOSAN IS TRULY SUSTAINABLE
Ecosan is not about disposal; it’s about recycling and transforming. It supports the idea of a circular economy. Ecosan is a closed loop circuit (it closes the nutrient and water cycle); nutrients are reused and recycled rather than being wasted and lost.
3. ECOSAN PREVENTS WASTE FROM ENTERING AND POLLUTING THE ENVIRONMENT
Ecosan UDDTs are aboveground structures. No part of the toilet (not even the faeces and urine containers) sits below ground. All human waste is sealed and contained. Ecosan toilets therefore act as a barrier between waste and the environment. For example, ecosan prevents sewage from polluting bodies of water (this avoids sewage killing fish, and causing algae booms and nitrification).
4. ECOSAN PUTS INTO PRACTICE THE IDEA OF: ‘PREVENTION, NOT TREATMENT’
Ecosan is about preventing pollution before it’s been created, rather than trying to control it afterwards. For example, it’s about keeping raw sewage out of water sources, rather than treating water sources post-contamination, or preventing intestinal illnesses rather that treating them in hospital.
5. CONVENTIONAL APPROACHES TO SANITATION CAN BE DANGEROUS, POLLUTING, AND WASTEFUL
‘Flush-and-Discharge’ toilets are: (1) Highly dependent on how the sewage is treated (waste water and sewage are often released into the open environment untreated); (2) Costly to maintain (e.g. problems with clogged pipes and leaky sewers); (3) Dependent upon a constant water supply, and waste large amounts of clean water; and (4) Unaffordable for many (they need expensive pipe networks and treatment plants)
‘Drop-and-Store’ toilets (e.g. pit latrines and septic tanks): (1) Are unsuited to many environments, such as rocky ground and where the ground is hard; (2) Can’t be used in areas where the groundwater level is high (microorganisms from the sewage mixes with the water table and contaminates drinking water); (3) Are unsuited to densely populated and crowded areas, such as slums (cross-contamination is highly likely when built too close to water sources); (4) Contain standing water, so mosquitoes and other flies breed in the sewage (flies carry faecal particles and transmit harmful pathogens); and (5) Are often either abandoned when the pits fill up; or dangerously emptied by hand; or simply released into the surrounding environment
6. ECOSAN TOILETS CAN BE BUILT ANYWHERE
The construction of ecosan toilets (unlike conventional toilets) is not affected by high water tables, hard rock or scarce water sources. They’re even ideally suited to high intensity environments, such as slums.
7. ECOSAN IS AN AFFORDABLE APPROACH TO SANITATION
Ecosan toilets are inexpensive compared to the installation of traditional sewers, septic tanks, and treatment plants. Furthermore, ecosan doesn’t require: a constant water supply for flushing, pipelines, or expensive watertight constructions, all of which demand high investment costs.
8. ECOSAN TOILETS ARE DESIGNED TO LAST FOR DECADES
Ecosan toilets are a low-tech solution, they are easy to maintain, and they have a long lifespan.
9. ECOSAN SAVES WATER
Ecosan toilets don’t require water (except for washing). This preserves this valuable natural resource, essential for life, and has fewer environmental costs compared to a flushing toilet.
10. ECOSAN BREAKS DOWN THE PATHOGENS IN FAECES
Ecosan does this through the natural processes of decomposition and dehydration. When faeces decompose, the ‘pathogens in them die and break down’, meaning that ‘viruses, bacteria and worm eggs are destroyed’ (Winblad, U. and M. Simpson-Hébert 2004:4). Ecosan toilets thus make faeces safe to reuse.
11. ECOSAN TOILETS FORM A BARRIER BETWEEN FAECES AND FLIES
Ecosan reduces standing water and, through the dehydration process, reduces extra humidity. This means that flies and mosquitoes don’t breed in the sewage. Furthermore, the urine and faeces containers are completely sealed, so there is a physical, artificial barrier between the faeces and flies.
12. ECOSAN REVEALS HUGE CONCERNS WITH CONVENTIONAL, CHEMICAL FERTILISERS
Chemical fertilisers are progressively degrading the world’s farmland. In the long term, chemical fertilisers actually deplete the soil of nutrients, destroy essential microbes, and make the soil more acidic, lowering its fertility. In fact, the Earth’s soil is being depleted of nutrients at more than 13% the rate they can be replaced. Furthermore, chemical fertilisers cannot replace topsoil. Earth is losing 25bn tonnes of topsoil per year (Winblad, U. and M. Simpson-Hébert 2004:74). This loss of topsoil is a huge concern, because it leads to diminished agricultural productivity, thus threatening food security.
13. ECOSAN RETURNS NUTRIENTS TO THE SOIL
Conventional approaches to sanitation misplace soil nutrients. The nutrients are ingested by humans, released through excreta, and then disposed of. Ecosan, however, returns these nutrients to the soil, in a circular process. Ecosan restores a natural cycle.
14. ECOSAN-COMPOST IMPROVES THE QUALITY OF SOIL
Compost made from faeces can: increase the availability of nutrients in the soil, increase the soil’s organic matter content, and improve the soil’s water-holding capacity (Winblad, U. and M. Simpson-Hébert 2004:75). Soil with a greater water holding capacity requires less watering, meaning that it is better able to withstand dry seasons and drought.
15. URINE IS ALSO AN EXTREMELY EFFECTIVE FERTILISER
The use of urine as a fertiliser is also hugely beneficial in agriculture: it creates a tougher environment for the survival of microorganisms, it increases the die-off rates of pathogens, and it stops mosquitoes breeding (Winblad, U. and M. Simpson-Hébert 2004:9). Both human faeces and urine can therefore be used to improve soil structure and supply nutrients to the soil.
16. ECOSAN INCREASES FOOD SECURITY
Ecosan compost improves agricultural yields, thus increasing food security. For example, our GroComp compost has proven to drive at least a 10% yield increase for banana farmers and a 60% yield increase for potted lady’s fingers (okra), compared to chemical fertilisers.
17. ECOSAN SAVES LIVES
Local waters, toxically contaminated by raw sewage, are key contributors to high levels of disease and sickness. Harmful pathogens and parasites are ingested by humans, leading to diarrhoea and other intestinal illnesses. By restricting human waste from entering the open environment, ecosan prevents raw sewage from contaminating water tables and making people unwell from these serious, and often deadly, illnesses. We have seen that after ecosan toilet installation, users are healthier (and can attend more days in school and or work) and spend less on healthcare, thereby increasing their overall quality of life.
If you too believe in the power of ecosan – shout about it! Post to social media (we’re on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – @SanFirstUK) and help us to raise awareness.
If you’d like to know more about how we use ecosan (e.g. our GroSan toilets in the slums of Puducherry, India), then check out our website here
To support our ecosan mission and to donate to our ecosan projects in India, click here