We can finally stop flushing a valuable energy source down the toilet, new research has found.
If all the world’s human waste were collected and converted into usable energy, it could be used to light up more than 138 million households, according to the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
Admittedly, it may take time for underserved communities to get over the “ick” factor, researchers noted, but a U.N. group has a plan in place to start implementing the process in Uganda, where more than half of residents share open pit latrines or practice open defecation, which in turn contaminates water sources and can lead to waterborne diseases.
“One thing is clear,” the researchers noted. “Rather than treating our waste as a major liability, with proper controls in place, we can use it to build innovative and sustained financing for development while protecting health and improving our environment in the process.”
The findings come at a time when the U.N. is on the line to improve sanitation and tackle the untreated wastewater issue.
As part of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September, the UN committed to halving the proportion of untreated wastewater by 2030.
Human waste has long been regarded as a worthy resource for agriculture, but its potential as an energy source has been largely neglected.
When fecal matter, and any other organic matter, is broken down in an oxygen-free system, “biogas” is generated, which can be used as a fuel source. And while a number of countries and wastewater treatment plants have harnessed biogas as an energy source, few have taken advantage of what “fecal sludge” has to offer.
According to the report, after the residue from the biogas is dried and charred, it can produce charcoal-equivalent coal, which would curb the destruction of trees.
While the study touted the cost-saving benefits, it also pointed to the concerns surrounding the safety of fuels derived in this way.
Yet a number of groups have already demonstrated benefits of the byproducts derived from human waste.
Sanivation, for example, provides toilets to refugees and low-income households in Kenya. It then collects the waste and treats it with solar energy to produce briquettes that can be safely used for cooking and heating homes.
Co-founder Emily Woods said in a video interview that the briquettes are particularly “fantastic” because they burn longer than standard coal, emit less carbon monoxide and particulate emissions, which means less pollution and significantly fewer deaths.
In partnership with the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment, its agencies, and other NGOs, the United Nations University established the Waste to Wealth national framework. Its goal is to decentralize waste management and to help bridge the finance gap for sanitation in Uganda.
The group has a number of local initiatives in the works, including equipping a Ugandan prison with a $100,000 system. It would require about $5,000 in annual operating costs, but is expected to pay for itself through fuel cost savings within two years. It also plans on using street waste to produce biogas and organic fertilizer.
“When it comes to creating misery and poverty, human waste mismanagement has few rivals,” Zafar Adeel, UNU-INWEH director, said in a statement. “If we can demonstrate a simple, cost effective new approach in low-resource settings, if we can successfully make a business case and change the economic paradigm of human waste management, we can advance development, protect the environment and help reduce sanitation problems causing one-10th of all world illnesses."
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