Innovations in Urban Waste Management

The New York Times’ science section recently wrote on a waste innovation from a Swedish architect called the PeePoo bag. The bio-degradable, one-time-use plastic bag could provide a more sustainable solution for human sewage management in urban slums around the world. Urea crystals within the bag break down the pathogens in feces. After use, the bag, which will be sold for 2-3 cents each, can be knotted and buried, turning into fertilizer. Anders Wilhelmson, who patented the bag, said “not only is it sanitary, they can reuse this to grow crops.” Wilhelmson tested the bag in Kenyan urban slums and found there were ample open space to bury the bags.

According to UN estimates, some 2.6 billion people or 40 percent of global population lack access to a toilet. Feces contaminates available drinking water in slums, and contributes to the early deaths of 1.5 million children per year. While the UN has set targets (improving the access to toilets by half by 2015), the private sector may need to get further involved in providing solutions. There is a large market firms can serve. Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, told The New York Times there is a trillion-dollar potential market in low-income countries.

However, not all are convinced. UNICEF advisor Therese Dooley said local governments and non-profits will need to step up and invest in improved sanitation servies, because “the private sector can play a major role, [but] it will never get to the bottom of the pyramid.” The bottom of the pyramid refers to the underserved four billion who make less than two dollars per day. Education, behavior change, and government support will be also needed.

Other waste management innovations cited by The New York Times include Rigel Technology of Singaore, which can separate wastes and turns solid waste into compost. Additionally, India’s Sulabh international has created a toilet model that can turn waste in gas, which could be used for cooking.

Read the article and check out the PeePoo bag.  Also, see a USAID / EPA sustainable sewage treatment project in Guatemala.

In the U.S., The Washington Post reports that livestock manure has grown to such an extent that all of it can’t be reused in crops. “The result in farming-heavy places has been too much manure and too little to do with it. In the air, that extra manure can dry into dust, forming a ‘brown fog.’ It can emit substances that contribute to climate change.” A Michigan environmental activist, Lynn Henning, said: “Manure is no longer manure. Manure is a toxic waste now.”

Animal waste also has the adverse effect of creating “too much life, and the wrong kinds,” including massive algae blooms that suck up oxygen. “Scientists say the number of suffocating dead zones — oxygen-depleted areas where even worms and clams climb out of the mud, desperate to respire — has grown from 16 in the 1950s to at least 230 today. The Chesapeake’s is usually the country’s third largest, after the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie.”  Kathy Phillps, an environmental / waste activist working in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, targets outside manure storage areas that contribute to water pollution. She said: “I don’t want to be the Poop Lady but, you know, somebody had to talk about this. It’s like this dirty little secret.”

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