Lack of toilets, water overuse will bring the crisis to the U.S., engineer predicts
By Charles Hallman
Human waste disposal and how to properly manage it has been a recognized environmental issue since 2008 when the United Nations declared that year the “International Year of Sanitation.” However, some believe that the issue is not getting enough attention as it should.
There are nearly three billion people worldwide today who don’t have access to a toilet, notes Ghana engineer Kweku Anno, who invented the Biofil Digester 15 years ago and introduced it in 2008. Anno’s Biofil Digester is “a unique waste treatment system” that claims to work 30 times faster than current septic systems and uses less water and disposes sewage without stench. He has installed over 2,000 Biofil Digesters in homes, offices and other buildings in Ghana, Belize, India, South Africa and Liberia, and says he believes one day it could eliminate the septic system.
An estimated 90 percent of the people living in Ghana don’t have access to toilets, says Anno. Without being too technical, he simply explained that the reason his system is stench-free is because it uses oxygen. “Anything that rests in water without oxygen will stink,” he pointed out.
“What Kweku has done is come up with an African solution for an African problem,” said St. Paul artist and environmental activist Seitu Jones, who introduced Anno at the Black Environmental Thought II conference last September at the University of Minnesota.
Anno, who is related to Jones by marriage, was among a group of inventors last fall who met with Bill Gates in Seattle to discuss human waste issues. “The Gates Foundation has launched this big initiative to help deal with human waste,” said Jones.
Properly disposing human waste “is a worldwide crisis,” continued Jones, who added that many people see talking about human waste in public as a taboo subject. “I am not a human waste expert, but we really have to talk about it, identify it and work to alleviate it because this affects us worldwide.”
Anno told the MSR that he strongly suggests that “a new mentality” is needed to effectively deal with human waste, a problem “in every country” around the world, not just on the African continent. “Human waste always has to be handled properly so that we do not retransmit diseases. In addition to the way we treat [human] waste…we need to begin to treat the waste in a way in which we can recover the nutrients. The oceans are beginning to have more nutrients than they ought to have.”
Americans too often take toilets for granted, believes Anno, but in his country and other parts of Africa, many people either must go outside or, if they do have indoor-toilet facilities, they must remove all their clothing before use to avoid the stench.
“There should not be one single person on this earth who does not have good…access to good sanitation,” stated Anno, who predicted, “Even [though] the need to solve the human waste problem is happening in Africa, ultimately it will happen in America. So it is important that we handled human waste properly.”
Jones agrees with Anno’s forecast — the human waste problem will soon come to America “because we need to come up with a way of dealing with human waste for the contemporary world,” he believes. “It was an issue 100 years ago, and [now] most of the water infrastructure that carries water throughout our houses and carries water away from our houses was built over a hundred years ago. Much of it is in decay or deterioration right now and needs to be repaired. At some point of time, it might not be economical for those big [sewerage disposal] plants to operate.
“We use so much water in flushing,” said Jones, who also expressed concerns about the type of paper people sometimes flush down toilets as well. “People use all kinds of stuff for toilet paper. This is another rough subject to talk about. Each individual in the U.S. uses about 50 pounds of toilet paper every year. Can we still maintain that? I hate to think about a world without toilet paper, but we also need to come up with solutions there.”
Even in the 21st century, there are still pockets of America that don’t have adequate toilet facilities, said Jones. Locally, Jones pointed out that the Metropolitan Council operates the Pig’s Eye plant located on the Mississippi River “where all of the sewage of this entire region goes. Everything that has to do with sewage goes to that plant.
“At some point, it will reach its capacity and we will not be able to maintain it,” Jones continued. “So we are going to be facing the same dilemma, the same problem.”
Both Anno and Jones believe that landfills, sewage plants and traditional septic systems are rapidly reaching the point of not meeting human waste needs and new solutions are now needed. Anno concluded that this is an environmental concern.
“What happens when [what people] flush…goes into the soil or in the ocean?” Anno asked.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.