Restroom Providers Should Take the Lead in Reusing Waste

Restroom Providers Should Take the Lead in Reusing Waste

Karleen Kos is executive director of the Portable Sanitation Association International. She may be reached at karleenk@psai.org or 952/854-8300.

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My stepfather grew up during the Great Depression. He and his friends loved nothing better than taking other people’s throwaway stuff and refurbishing it into something the family could use or sell for cash. The boys saw nothing as trash. They only saw a challenge: money to be made or wasted.

Human waste is sort of like that. The portable sanitation industry pumps around 2 billion gallons of waste each year — and that is just a few drops in the bucket next to the amount of waste and wastewater created by the 7.5 billion people roaming planet Earth. In developed countries, portable sanitation operators often have trouble finding adequate disposal sites and fees increase annually. In many countries, it simply isn’t feasible to build the sort of treatment plants that are common in the developed world.

That’s why there is a global movement toward treating human excrement not as something to be wasted, but as something to be reclaimed and made profitable when possible. For example:

  • A portable restroom operator in West Virginia put in his own on-site treatment solution. He now recharges his portable units with water that’s been treated on his own yard, decreasing his dependence on water he has to pay for.
  • In Vermont, a portable restroom operator is working with the Rich Earth Institute on experiments in urine diversion. Using special portable units to collect the urine, researchers have developed ways for urine to be collected odorlessly and aesthetically using modern fixtures, and then concentrated and efficiently transported large distances from urban areas to outlying farms.
  • In Washington state, a company has developed an omni processor that takes in human waste, kills all pathogens, and produces no harmful emissions while producing electricity, potable water, heat, and ash that’s dry and sterile.
  • In South Africa, a company is using flies to convert human waste into a variety of products that can be sold for profit. The process works like this: The larvae of the black soldier fly consume organic waste in order to grow to adult size. The adult larvae are then processed into products such as chicken feed, pet food and oils. The residue can be used as a soil conditioner or converted into biochar.

Most of these technologies — and a dozen or more like them — are still in the experimental stages. It won’t be long, though, before they are ready for wider use in both developed and developing nations. Some will be small enough for companies to use alone. Others are solutions for entire communities, presenting areas with nonexistent or overtaxed infrastructure with new and exciting options for treating and reclaiming human waste.

The PSAI, together with the International Organization for Standardization, the American National Standards Institute, and representatives from dozens of countries, is working to create global standards so these new technologies can be relied upon once they are ready for the broader market. We are doing it because portable sanitation needs to be at the table when topics are discussed that will inevitably create opportunities for members and the way they do business. We are doing it because renewing rather than disposing is the future of handling waste. Most importantly, we are doing it because it is the right thing to do.

Now is the time for our industry to see the stuff we pump not as a problem, but as a challenge … as money to be made or wasted. Won’t you join us?



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