On Purpose

World Toilet Day with Loowatt

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Who cares about toilets? Half of the entire global population do - because they don’t have one. World Toilet Day celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 3.6 billion people living without access to safe sanitation. Loowatt, one of On Purpose’s Associate Programme placement organisations, has made it their mission to ‘provide valued, high quality and sustainable toilets and sanitation systems that transform the lives of individuals, communities and the environment.’ Today we speak to Loowatt’s Founder and CEO Virginia Gardiner* to find out what Loowatt is doing to fight the global sanitation crisis and how it is harnessing the ‘power of poop’.

Can you tell us a little more about Loowatt?

We are a toilet company. We make waterless toilet systems that provide an experience on par with the flush toilet and facilitate waste treatment in energy and fertilizer generating systems. We build toilets, we build waste processing machines. We develop software solutions to support servicing. And fundamentally, we believe that bringing value to the waterless toilet experience, so that when people use a Loowatt toilet, they feel the happiness they feel when using a traditional flush toilet, is the key to figuring out how we can transform sanitation around the world today.

We deliver our technology in urban sanitation markets, so cities without sewers, where the main toilets are latrines and we sell portable toilets. Anywhere you would normally find a chemical toilet [such as a festival] or maybe a vacuum flush toilet, you could have a Loowatt toilet. In both of these markets, there has been what we would call a race to the bottom...apologies, I had to make that joke! But it's true because there's been a problem with the incumbent solution, which is not something that people ‘value’. I remember very clearly when I went on one of my first trips to Madagascar, where Loowatt is working in the capital city Antananarivo, our country leader, said to me: “You need to understand that for people living in these areas of the city, the toilet is basically a shit. It's awful. It's not something people think about being worth anything.” And that's the difference between toilets and, for example, water or energy. Those things have a price per litre - per litre of gas or per litre of water. There's a price and so there's already a commodity. If you're coming in with a more sustainable solution, you need to show people the value. We do that by showing them a great experience with a toilet.

What inspired you to invent this new type of toilet and how does it work?

Toilets have been a fascination of mine for a long time. I think it's because they are a very everyday part of human life that we take for granted. Which is linked to unseen infrastructures. We've got this thing that we're using all the time, but we don't think about where the waste is going or what's happening outside or beyond. I had a book when I was a kid about a pet alligator that gets flushed down the sewer in New York after it gets a little too big. It meets other alligators in the sewer and it turns out that there’s a whole world, a whole community of alligators, living in the sewer. It's a great kids book, but I guess for me, that story might have been one of the very early times that I began thinking about what happens to the waste we produce. A little later, in my first job writing for a magazine, I was tasked with going to a Kitchen and Bath Industry Show. It was quite a weird event. If you think about SUVs, oversized cars in America, and what they are a symbol of, it felt like I was seeing that for toilets. I went back to my boss that I actually had found the show a bit disturbing. She recommended I read a book called ‘The bathroom, the kitchen and the aesthetics of waste’, about the history of plumbing in the American home. For the American culture, I would describe it as a mix of rapacious and religious. On the one hand we love to consume the toilet, there are lots of analogies between the toilet and, and the gods, the porcelain gods, praying to the porcelain gods. There's a lot of religious, cultural myths around the toilet. How we use the toilet, whether we should wash or wipe, whether we should sit or stand? It's ingrained in our behavioral psychology and also flushing the toilet is a thing that people have a relationship to because we do it. Or we don't do it or we don't do it every time. Some people let it mellow and it's yellow. Other people think that's disgusting. But all the while we're flushing at least eight liters of water down every time we flush it. That was when I decided to do something new with toilets. Years later, when I was doing a master's degree, I thought well, I'm going to make a different kind of toilet. But I want it to be waterless and I want it to turn shit into a commodity. But I also want to be able to use it in my apartment in London. And have it be nice. I did experiment at the time with composting, for example, with an in-bathroom vermi composting toilet. I also visited a professor who's an expert in eco sanitation, who had set up a toilet with a wormery in his house. The toilet was cool, but it smelled weird in the bathroom, a little bit like poo and a little bit like stuff that was rotting. It was clear that it wasn't for everyone and really, I don't know if I would really want it in my house. It would feel like a concession and I don't think a toilet should feel like a concession.

What our Loowatt toilet does is it packages waste. It uses a patented and unique way of doing that, using a small amount of polymer film, which then is pulled down into the container below. It’s like a flush toilet, however in lieu of using a lot of water, it uses just a few grams of polymer film. We've also developed machinery at the treatment end which separates that film out again, so that it can be composted or recycled. We've thought through the entire process, to be able to have a closed loop system for everything that goes through the toilet, with the exception of items, such as flushed down tampon applicators. Those will be separated out by our machine and sent to a different type of disposal. So there's a small amount of unmentionable waste that might end up in toilets, however, in terms of the film and the human waste, the machine that we have ensures that the end of life can be closed-loop. The key point about waste value waste management is that there are a lot of existing technologies out there that are doing it already: Anaerobic Digestion is the most widespread and it is used at utility sites around the UK and around Madagascar as well. Here, a portion of the organic waste is released as methane gas which is then captured and used for energy. Our Loowatt toilets capture the waste so that it can be used as fresh feedstock for those types of systems or other systems. One of the other features of our technology is that we've designed it to be very easily adopted by existing utility systems. So we’ve got the toilet at the front end, which provides a valued experience to the end user. And we’ve got the treatment solution, which can be plugged into a wide range of treatment systems, however which facilitates converting waste into value, as you're getting this fresh feedstock. It’s important to know that because, for example, latrines are very widespread. They are the main incumbent solution you’ll find across Sub Saharan Africa. What happens in latrines is that the waste sits there and it gradually releases greenhouse gases, week after week. A recent estimate that was published recently in a scientific paper claims that 126 kilograms of carbon are emitted per latrine user per year. With the Loowatt toilet, by bringing in a solution which captures the waste when it's fresh, we're also offsetting carbon emissions.

Next to enabling access to safe sanitation, Loowatt is also harnessing ‘the power of poop’! Why is this important?

When we first started Loowatt, we were really excited about anaerobic digestion. And that's because anaerobic digestion is really exciting! I think it's an activity that should be done more in schools. Because when you find out that if you put organic waste in a container, you can make natural gas and you see that gas flame burn for the first time, it kind of blows your mind! And that’s a really important lesson about that kind of material as well because it teaches you that there’s this embodied energy. However, when it comes to human waste, as feedstock, its feedstock, there's no doubt about that. But it's already been digested by a fairly sophisticated animal. What you'll find is that most of the systems that do waste to value only work if you co-process other feedstocks with human waste. In particular food waste, which has not been digested. Co-digestion is what makes it turn into something that is really lucrative in terms of the yield. Because if you just feed it poo, then you don't get as much biogas. If you're doing it with black soldier flies to make animal feed, you don't get as fat larvae. Fecal matter is not as good feedstock as food waste is. So it's very important when we think about reinventing sanitation, to bear that in mind and look at it at the systems level. And also remember that if the service doesn't wipe its face financially, so if people don't value the toilet enough, then it probably won't work. People sometimes have had a fantasy that their shit might be worth money. Because it sounds like a great idea if it is. But I guess I'm putting it to you in another way. Your shit is only worth money if it gets combined with other organic waste. So don't build a system around the idea that people are going to want to buy your shit.

What can I do to help solve the global sanitation crisis?

Great question. It's a big one. One thing I would say is, and one thing we don't do enough of, is just engage with what the challenges are. For me, one of the reasons why the sanitation crisis is still going on is because it's a taboo topic that people don't want to talk about.

Another reason is what I mentioned before about unseen infrastructures. For example, how many people do you know who know where the waste collected outside of their house is going? I ran into a sanitation friend the other day, a ‘poop friend’, who was talking about research he'd been doing on the waste disposal from councils in South London. And I thought, this is really good. I can finally talk to somebody who's done this work. And I think school trips should be going to take kids to see things like that. Educating people about what's happening right here and also what's happening around the world needs to be done a lot more. People have a tendency not to want to think about or talk about stuff that's distasteful to them. Here, petroleum and energy can be an interesting example as well. There's an industry which is providing us with stuff that we're using. And we're just turning a blind eye to what that industry is, and also using the stuff. Sometimes we might make assumptions as well and say, “Oh, it's terrible.” We know that it's bad, that bad stuff is happening, but we don't really know what the bad stuff is. And we don't really know how we can be part of the solution because we haven't really understood what the issues are. So I would say promote awareness and include a really good book list. The more we can learn about it, the more we can be part of the solutions that we need. And teach our kids about it. One thing kids do love talking about is poop!

Loowatt is one of On Purpose’s partner organisations. You can find out more about Loowatt by watching the video below.

*Virginia Gardiner is the original inventor of Loowatt, a revolutionary waterless and energy-generating toilet system. As founder and CEO, she leads a growing enterprise which provides sanitation hardware to municipal and portable service providers seeking high-quality non-sewered solutions. Loowatt has customers in the Philippines, Madagascar, and the United Kingdom, and is expanding into other regions. Loowatt systems have served over 250,000 people, captured over 750 tons of waste, and generated over 56mWh of renewable energy. Prior to starting Loowatt in 2010, Virginia spent 7 years working with award-winning product and design companies and wrote about the built environment for publications including Dwell, Metropolis and The New York Times. 

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