Update: Note to Mathew, call people, don’t just google companies.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Brent from Hyphae Design Lab in person.  Although they don’t say so on their website, they have extensive toilet experience and know exactly what they’re up to.  I look forward to hearing more about the project.




This could really set composting toilets back in the US. Coverage in the NYT here. Hyphae Design Lab, a design firm in Oakland is claiming three totally erroneous things, and it looks like the city of SF might buy their load of…

1) The revenue from nutrients recovered from excrement can pay for toilet servicing. A year of your urine is worth about $4.13 based on its nutrient value. If its impossible to service a toilet in the Philippines for the value of urine, its not going to work at US wages.  Also, the 19th century sewage systems of Paris, the collection systems of Manchester, UK, all failed to turn a profit.  Didn’t work then, doesn’t work now.

2) Urine diverting toilets work in public facilities.  To be blunt, people crap in the pee hole.   I don’t have a good single citation for this, just conversations with Seecon and others who have tried UDDTs in public areas.  To quote:

When new user-interfaces or management approaches have been introduced, such as Urine Diversion Dehydration Toilets (UDDT) or a new system for composting of kitchen waste, which heavily rely on the correct operation from the user’s side, the end-users have to be properly trained to ensure that they will operate the systems correctly.

3) UV sterilizing lights, can be used both as “lanterns” to attract users and to kill germs.  This isn’t possible, because looking at UV-C rays causes blindness.


So a note to Hyphae– please spend more time on research, less time making press-friendly vector graphics.

Eco-Toilet Summit II: Human Waste and Why it Matters

Check out the full hand out from the Summit. It’s full of facts, figures and great resources on eco-toilets.

I had the good fortune of being able to attend the 2nd Eco-Toilet Summit in Falmouth, Massachusetts on July 16th. The event was a follow up to the 1st EcoToilet Summit held on March 19th (Read Mathew’s previous post on PHLUSH’s blog). The goal of the event was to inform citizens of Falmouth of the environmental problem caused by poorly operating septic tanks and current waste management practices and introduce them to off the shelf affordable solutions like composting toilets and marine aquaculture.

The Problem in Falmouth:
Falmouth is located on Cape Cod and contains four polluted estuaries. Falmouth is a town of about 31,500 people living on glacial sands in a unique marine environment. The sandy soils mean liquids can travel quicker through the soil than soils containing clay. The town is potentially facing $468 to 595 million in sewer construction costs, connection fees, design and operation and maintenance unless another plan can be created. This comes to a connection fee per household of $2,000-5,000 plus operation and maintenance of $500 per year.

Current Status:
Currently the town is assembling a committee to oversee the creation of an alternative nutrient & water management plan with a budget of $2.2 million for creating the plan. They’ve allocated a mere $500,000 for sewer design. For a more detailed account of what they’re planning (includes shellfish aquaculture and nitrogen reduction demo projects!) check this out.

The Coalition of Actors:
The EcoToilet Summit was organized by Earle Barnhart and Hilde Maingay of the Green Center with support from Clean Water Action, Falmouth Climate Action Team, Green Cape, Nature’s Circle, Cape & island Group Sierra Club, Water Alliance and many enthusiastic volunteers.

How they’re approaching the issue:
While the goal is to make sure human excrement and wastewater is managed responsibly, the Summit focused on how to use this problem to create economic returns for the community.

How the Eco-toilet Summit was run:
The Summit was run on a shoestring budget by Earle and Hilde who organized speakers to provide a full days worth of educational workshops led by experts from Pennsylvania to Vermont, farm fresh snacks and time for informal discussions.

Presenters highlight upcoming issues, not just for Falmouth but the whole country:
The keynote speaker was senator Jamie Eldridge. Senator Eldridge highlighted the looming reality that federal funding for sewer projects is decreasing but regulatory standards for waste treatment are rising. He also suggested that in the near future the EPA will be regulating not just wastewater but also storm water. Communities will need to find creative ways to finance their programs and reduce costs like charging per square foot for impermeable paving in order to generate funds for decentralized sanitation networks.

On the social side, participants pointed out that sewering changes the composition of a town by allowing for increased density. On the financial side, the construction of sewers is an incredibly energy intensive activity which disrupts businesses for long periods of time while tearing up roads and sidewalks.

Earle Barnhart’s presentation was a fantastic summary of the current wastewater treatment proposals for Falmouth and encouraged us to think not just about the ecosystems carrying capacity but also our social carrying capacity. How can we create sanitation systems that manage nutrients and are acceptable?

Don Mills, Sales Director of Clivus Multrum, gave a rousing talk on “How We Got Hooked on Sewage and How We Can Break the Habit.” If you haven’t heard Don talk, it’s awesome to hear someone give a full lecture on the history of human waste management from cave men to astronauts.

One of the most useful parts of the summit for homeowners was a series of workshops on specific off the shelf technologies that were on hand that day for the public. Carol Steinfeld spoke of Ecovita’s urine diverting toilet and carousel toilets. Abe Noe-Hayes of Vermont introduced how Phoenix composting toilets work allowing participants to look inside and see for themselves. Jack Doyle showed off Pacto Packaging Toilets as a socially acceptable low cost solution. The Pacto toilet packages excreta into a continuos sheet of plastic for easy disposable in a bin. The bags are now available in biodegradable plastic that degrades in 1-2 years. The Pacto received a lot of attention for being the first sanitation system up and running in Kobe, Japan after the earth quake in 2000.

Ron Zweig, a former New Alchemists and aquaculture specialist, did a great presentation on using oyster cultivation as a means to uptake the nutrients in Falmouth’s waterways. Zweig pointed out that over 40% of the operating costs for aquaculture is from providing feed, and in Falmouth that cost would be eliminated since the waters contain such high nutrient levels already.

The Summit furthered the conversation and deepened everyones knowledge of the issues. I was very inspired by the mindful work of Earle and Hilde in organizing such an informative event that got to the heart of people’s questions and concerns. Waste as a resource is a difficult thing to talk about but for those of us at the Summit that day it felt like a new wave of opportunity was beginning.

Eco-Toilet Summit in Cape Cod Saturday July 16th

Falmouth, Massachusetts is continuing the conversation about how to manage their wastewater conundrum. The community’s current wastewater systems are threatening groundwater and the current options are expensive. If you’re interested in learning more about alternatives to expensive onsite wastewater treatment systems, this will be a very educational event. I’ll be getting back from our studies in Switzerland just in time to attend this event. Eco toilet Summit July 16th, 2011

contact capecodalchemists at g mail dot com for more information.

Public Laboratory wins a grant from the Knight News Challenge!

At the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, of which I’m a co-founder, we’ve just been awarded $500,000 by the Knight Foundation. Congrats to all my co-founders, Jeff, Sara, Shannon, Adam, Liz,Stewart, and to our whole online community, and thanks to the Knight Foundation! This is really going jump-start a lot of work!
Read the announcement here
Our post about it here

Can Iceland Crowdsource their Constitution?

check out Good’s article on Iceland’s process for drafting a new constitution.

Understanding the low demand for sanitation for those with little money

Mat and I had a chance to hear Isabel Guenther speak on May 24th on the dynamics of sanitation and water investments as part of the Cewas program in Switzerland. Guenther is Professor of Development Economics at the Center for Development and Cooperation (NADEL) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH).

Guenther was interested in understanding the demand for water and sanitation for people with precarious access to such services. For those of us who have consistent access to clean water and adequate sanitaiton it is hard for us to understand the the drivers of the water and sanitation market in developing areas. I particularly appreciated her presentation because it confirmed one of my long standing beliefs that people with the least amount of money make the most rational decisions. I know for me, I make better financial decisions when my bank account has the least amount of money in it.

High Discount rates for the very poor

Guenther pointed out that the primary issue with those with the least amount of money is that they have incredibly high discount rates. Meaning that their needs today are so high that ten dollars today to get water and food is worth SOOO much more than twice or even four times as much money next week. Why wait for more money next week, if you die of dehydration while waiting?

When stuck in a hard place, people choose water over sanitation

Changes in the price of water to not have a large impact on the demand for water, people must have water everyday (the price is inelastic of demand). However, if the price of sanitation increase a little, people are much less willing to pay. Guenther found that the mean willingness to pay for sanitation was about 1% of one’s yearly income. Here in Portland the median household spends 1.3% of it’s income on sanitation, making sewer fees the #2 complaint in the Mayor’s Office.


The longer people will benefit from their investment, the more they will invest. If you don’t know how long you’re going to be somewhere (because of a sketchy contract with a landlord or refugee situation) it’s hard to tell whether you’ll get your investment back for installing sanitation and water infrastructure.

Positive Externalities of good W+S systems discourage personal investment:

Since improved sanitation and water benefit everyone, it’s difficult to get everyone to participate. If 75% of a town improves sanitation there will be health benefits for everyone (Guenther).

The Benefits of Sanitation are not What We thought

So Guenther wanted to find out WHY families are more willing to invest in water than sanitation infrastructure. Aid groups prioritize funding wells and water programs, but what do local households prioritize? What are the perceived benefist of improved sanitation over improved water? (link to study results

Advantages of water systems for households:
41% Easier to Use
38% Cleaner Water/Environment
33% Time Gains
28% Health
19% More Water
0% Privacy
0% Prestige

Advantages of improved sanitation systems for RURAL households:
56% Cleaner Water/ Environment
37% Health
29% Privacy
15% Easier to Use
14% Prestige
0% Time Gains

The Advantages of improved sanitation systems for URBAN households
47% Privacy
44% Easier to Use
34% Cleaner WAter/Environment
26% Health
14% Time Gains
3.8% Prestige

Now of course, aid groups aren’t funding pit latrines in order to meet local desire for privacy and status, they want to reduce deaths from diarrhea (currently the #1 killer in the world). What I liked about Guenther’s presentation was it highlighted the importance of assuming that all people (even the poorest stuck in refugee camps) are rational actors and if we want to provide water and sanitaiton for them we must meet NOT the perceived needs but the actual needs of the community if we are to find lasting solutions. Her favorite method of intervention to promote good water and sanitation is a method called Community Led Total Sanitation. CLTS is an idea where by locals educate their community about the risks of open defecation and let the community decide how to solve their water and sanitation problems.

How do we increase access to sanitation? Lower costs of toilets, AND increase the cost of not using toilets
Guenther’s favorite case study was a Community Led Sanitaiton project in Bangladesh where the community increased toilet use by raising the price of open defecation. Yes, we can try to make sanitaiton systems cheaper, but we often forget that we can also raise the price of the other options to change behavior. In this village children went around marking community members who continued to openly defecate after the educational session about the dangers of this practice. “Shame” increased the cost of open defecation..

The Dream of the 60′s is Alive in Wolhusen

As part of the Cewas start up program Mathew and I had a chance on May 19th to visit Tropenhaus, a greenhouse for tropical plants located in the small town of Wolhusen, CH.

The idea for the tropical house began with Johannes Heeb 11 years ago. The motivation was to re-use the waste heat from the natural gas plant in Wolhusen. In 1997 the Swiss parliament passed a law requiring all utilities to re-use at least 60% of their waste heat. With this new mandate Heeb was able to get funding to build two glass greenhouses nearby the natural gas plant. First the natural gas plant runs excess heat through a standard steam generator to create electricity for the greenhouse. next, waste heat from that process is used to heat the greenhouses and a nearby hospital. The heat is directed from the plant to the greenhouse where it is cooled from 540 C to 70 C to help maintain warm air and water in the greenhouse for plants and fish. The greenhouse opened to the public March 2010. the first pilot project of the Tropenhaus was in 1999 in Ruswil, also in the Canton Luzern.

Together, the ‘Tropenhaus’ (literally Tropical house) and the hospital use 40% of the natural gas plant’s waste heat.

Initially the greenhouse was designed purely for production of edible tropical plants like ginger, lemongrass, papaya and bananas. As the project moved along an educational center and restaurant were incorporated in to the plans. The center is now a beautiful break from a cloudy day in the pre-alps and features educational walking tours of the exhibition greenhouse. It was my first time seeing coffee, cotton, pineapple and curry leaves growing in person. I was astounded that I had never had the chance to see, touch and smell these amazing plants that I depend on every day. The exhibition greenhouse features a monthly exhibition, currently about cotton production, a gift shop and a restaurant.

The second greenhouse is just for production. When it was built it was the first time in the world that topical plants like papayas and bananas were grown indoors. Johannes scoured the literature for relevant studies on how to manage such agriculture systems indoors and eventually just began experimenting. Recently they had some problems with insects in the soil around the papaya trees. Chickens are now part of the greenhouse, devouring insects in the soil and providing acoustical performances for visitors. 50 part time staff (instead of 25 full time staff) run the facility and conduct research on the system to share with others who are interested in tropical plant greenhouses. They have much to share, papaya trees are tighed down so they curve like a “J” to all them to grow closer together and keep them shorter while producing fruit.

Tropenhaus is the financially sound manifestation of the 60s dream. They’ve incorporated the best practices of permaculture, aquaculture and polyculture research of the past forty years, and made a profitable business model. The tilapia swim in gigantic tanks which are warmed by the waste heat. The water from the tilapia tank is filtered through a bed of edible plants like water spinach, galgant, lemon grass, and taro which are used in the restaurant. The filtered nutrient rich water is then used to fertilize and irrigate the other plants which grow in the Swiss soil.

While technically fascinating and impressive, the Tropenhaus shines because it’s fun. While we were there several young couples in formal evening wear gathered at the restaurant for drinks, probably heading off to a formal dance. In a small Swiss village, Tropenhaus is (literally) the hottest place to go out. Where else can you where a ballgown in Switzerland in winter? And drink fresh starfruit juice?

Talkin’ Shit in Switzerland

The Cloacina Project is in Switzerland till July 9th to participate in the first ever Cewas Start Up Programme in Willisau, Switzerland. The start up program brings together 12 young professionals from around the world for a year with several sessions in Switzerland, on session in India and yearlong mentorship from some of the world’s experts in sustainable sanitation and water approaches. Cewas is the first program to focus on incubating sustainable water and sanitation businesses and we are thrilled to be part of it.

Last week Mat and I got to talk shit with Thilo Panzerbieter of the German Toilet Organization. Thilo is a civil engineer who was working on installing ecological sanitation systems in the Zambia when he decided to focus his attention on advocating for sanitation work in his home country. Thilo’s two advocacy campaigns are on the cutting edge of awareness raising for sanitation. While I hadn’t heard of either campaigns before his presentation I was familiar with phrases that came out of the campaign like “sanitation as dignity.” This gets to two points: while I hadn’t seen any of his campaigns (the first of which was staged in 2006 in Germany and is now on a rotating tour around the globe) I had felt the impact of that work through my sanitation activists friends at PHLUSH.

What’s interesting about Thilo is he uses the taboo of sanitation as a strength for communicating the importance of the sanitation crisis. He took lessons from the HIV/AIDS campaigns of the late 90s that focused on mainstream media, rock concerts, movies and the energy of youth culture to spark a change in attitudes towards discussing something as taboo as sex. His focus has been on clear and simple messages backed by facts. His current show: ‘Voices for Sanitation’ and ‘Where Would You Hide’ are currently on tour around the world.

His current project, “Toilitised World” is a participatory approach to address sanitation in local schools in Berlin. It’s kind of like Community Led Total Sanitation, only for 13-16 year olds in Berlin who have access to flush toilets, but the bathrooms are still a mess. He facilitates a conversation among teachers, principals and students to discuss the sanitation situation in the schools to initiate positive change. He uses this discussion as an entry point to discuss sanitation situations for kids in developing countries. I was inspired to see someone introducing the true participatory processes to youngsters. For more on what is and isn’t participation check out our previous post on Colin Ward’s work.

The 90s: US starts land applying sludge, Swizterland stops

In the 1990s, Switzerland banned the re-use of sludge for any agricultural purposes because of the high heavy metal and other persistent pollutants. Austria, and Sweden also banned such re-use. The main concern was that since waste water systems combine industrial and residential waste, the treated material could be harmful to the longterm health of the land and people. Currently Switzerland burns all of it’s sewage sludge.

A national ban of ocean dumping sewage sludge in 1988 in the US initiated a switch to land application after 1991 of treated sewage sludge (mixed with industrial waste) to the land. It’s currently applied to farms all over the US. The ban on ocean dumping was initiated after a summer in which large volumes of medical and other wastes washed up on beaches in New York and New Jersey.

Mike Sharpe at the Water Environment School this spring in Oregon City discussed New York City’s sludge, which currently travels 2000 miles to be applied to a farm in Colorado. Depending on costs it is sometimes applied to a farm in Alexandria, Virginia. What a different world we live in. I was surprised to learn that at the same time the US began applying industrial and residential waste to the land, European countries began banning the practice.

Ecological Sanitation in Haiti: Talk at Reed College Today

Today Sasha Kramer (99′) will be talking at her alma mater about her work with SOIL to provide dry toilets in Haiti. Her talk is at 4:45 p.m., Wednesday, April 27, Biology 19.

SOIL hired Joe Jenkins to come down to Haiti and consult on sanitation techniques down there. Here’s a great video of his recommendations and review of current practices down there.

Emergency Sanitation Workshop This Saturday

We'll be doing a 45 minute workshop on Saturday June 2nd @ 2pm at King Elementary School as part of Resilience PDX.org
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