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“Entrepreneurs are finding profits turning human waste into fertilizer, fuel and even food”

On the outskirts of Kigali, Rwanda, septic trucks full of human excrement bump and slosh their way up orange dirt roads to their final destination: the Nduba landfill. Until recently, the trucks would spill their contents into giant open pits. But since 2015, workers in green jumpsuits have greeted them outside a row of sheds and plastic-roofed greenhouses, ready to process the faecal sludge into a dry, powdery fuel.

The facility is called Pivot, and its founder is Ashley Muspratt, a sanitation engineer who lived in Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda for more than seven years before moving back to the United States last year. Muspratt insists that Pivot is not a treatment plant. It’s a business. Its product powers local industries such as cement and brick plants. “I describe us as dual sanitation and renewable-fuel company,” Muspratt says. “Our model really is to build factories.”

Muspratt is part of a growing band of entrepreneurs trying to address one of the biggest challenges in public health—poor sanitation—and to turn a profit doing it. According to a report published by the World Health Organization and United Nations children’s charity Unicef in July, 2.8 billion people—38% of the world’s population—have no access to sewers and deposit their waste in tanks and pit latrines (see ‘Sanitation across nations’). These often overfill or are emptied without regard to safety. By 2030, some estimate that the number of people using tanks and pits will rise to 5 billion, while at the same time international aid for water and sanitation is predicted to shrink. High-profile initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals have been pretty good at “getting bums on toilet seats or feet on squat pans”, says Claire Furlong, an environmental engineer at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands. “But those toilets filled up. What do we do with that?”

Muspratt and others have a few answers. Making fertilizer or fuel is the most obvious, but researchers and entrepreneurs are exploring other uses. Some are growing plants in drying beds or breeding catfish in the artificial ponds that facilities typically use to treat sludge. Others are drying out sludge and incorporating it into building materials such as cement and bricks. Beyond that, companies are exploring whether certain fatty acids in sludge could provide important components of bioplastics and industrial chemicals. Larvae that feed on faeces are being pressed to make an oil for industrial uses, and in the future they could be used as animal food.

These approaches reflect a rethinking of sludge treatment—with the end product, and not just public health, in mind from the start. The economic model of sanitation is also changing, moving from an entirely public service to one run at least partly by private enterprises that are finding value in excrement, says Doulaye Kone, deputy director of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. Under the old model, he says, “there’s no opportunity to sell anything, and then the government has to pay for operational costs. The day the budget dries up, everyone is in trouble.” As a result, many treatment plants in developing countries now lie abandoned.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-new-economy-of-excrement/

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