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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Turning Waste to Fertilizer -- Humanure

Air Date: Week of

After last year’s earthquake in Haiti more than a million people were left homeless and without access to proper sewage facilities. A new pilot project is bringing composting toilets to Haiti’s camps, and turning human waste into fertilizer.


GELLERMAN: When you gotta go, you gotta go. But to avoid embarrassment, we use all kinds of euphemisms. We visit the porcelain palace, do number two, and powder our noses, then it’s down the sewer, out of sight, and out of mind - at least for most of us. But 40 percent of the people on the planet lack a sanitary method for disposing of their own waste.

Poverty is a large part of the problem and it’s made worse when natural disaster strikes. In Haiti, where more than a million people are still homeless after last year’s earthquake, euphemisms don’t help. The waste from people is literally piling up, leading to death and disease. So for the past year, the organization Give Love has been running a pilot program in Haiti to turn human waste into “humanure.” Alisa Keesey is the group’s program director there.

KEESEY: Even before the earthquake, 50 percent of city dwellers did not have access to a proper toilet. People were what’s known in the business as open-defecators, or using plastic bags to dispose of their waste, or sometimes poorly maintained pit latrines. So it wasn’t a very pleasant thing to do, and it’s a situation everyone has to deal with everyday. And there really weren’t a lot of options for people.

Humanure Compost Training in Haiti

GELLERMAN: There was no processing of human waste at all?

KEESEY: They’re using pit latrines, so there is the sludging of pit latrines, and then that waste is de-sludged and dumped into open wetland areas, it’s minimally treated - it’s quite an ecological disaster there, actually, because there hasn’t really been a long term solution figured out. You know, affordable sanitation systems for the poor.

GELLERMAN: Well you’ve got an old problem, and as I understand it, you’ve got a pilot program to use an old technology to solve it.

KEESEY: Yes. A very simple, low-tech solution is thermophilic composting. We collect excreta in compost toilets and then we build a very large compost pile and we layer the waste with…we are, in Haiti, using sugar cane bagasse - it’s a byproduct of rum and sugarcane production. We mix in market waste, which is just food scraps from, you know, banana peels, to, you know, mango peels, whatever is in the market, and we, you know, layer it with more carbon cover material - the sugar cane bagasse - to control odor and flies, and then we monitor the piles to make sure our temperatures are very high.

And then the second phase is just the composting phase - the maturation phase where you’re just basically converting the organic material into a usable compost for agricultural use.

GELLERMAN: Well, let me ask an obvious, but unsavory question - does it smell?

KEESEY: I was surprised that we could take such large volume excreta from a camp in Haiti and have no smell at all. I tell people you could picnic on top of our compost pile - it’s actually so pleasant compared to other areas that have pit latrines because there’s no smell at all.

GELLERMAN: So what do you do with the ‘humanure’ once you’ve, you know, collected it and it’s fully decomposed?

KEESEY: As part of our pilot project, we’re going to do extensive testing on our compost to show that it is a safe method to sanitize toilet contents, and our plans are to use it on tree crops, nurseries, and in small gardens.

Haitian refuge camps like this house more than 1 million people. (Red Cross)

GELLERMAN: I thought you couldn’t use human waste on crops, food crops.

KEESEY: That’s not correct at all. You can use it on food crops. We’re actually following World Health Organization standards. As long as the compost pile reaches high temperature, and we do monitor this - our temperatures on our test pilot were very, very high, about 160 degrees. You sanitize the potential pathogens in the pile through high-heat temperatures - kill off any dangerous organisms in the pile. Six to eight months, nine months later, it can be used on agricultural crops safely.

GELLERMAN: Why haven’t they been using this technology in Haiti and other places?

KEESEY: I think the number one reason why people haven’t explored this technology to its full potential is fecophobia. We’re just afraid of this product - it’s an organic product, but there’s a lot of stigma attached to working in sanitation. And the second big challenge is no one has really workable, scalable models developed yet. No one really knows how to scale it up. So that’s one of the goals of our program is to promote this technology and give tangible know-how skills - teach Haitian groups how to do it themselves.

GELLERMAN: So, Ms. Keesey, I guess you’ve been doing this, what, a year, right?

KEESEY: One year, this month. Yes.

GELLERMAN: So how have the Haitian people reacted to this method?

KEESEY: Well, we have a line out the door of primary schools and small groups that want us to do trainings for them. We’re building about one or two projects a month, and we hope to train more people so we can, obviously, build as many “humanure” compost sites as people want. Seeing is believing, or smelling is believing, as I say, because once you smell a compost pile and see it transformed into a high-value fertilizer, it’s hard to, you know, think about wasting human waste. We don’t call it human waste, but this is a natural, organic product that’s rich in nutrients, and it should be put back into the soil.

GELLERMAN: Alisa Keesey is the program director at Give Love in Haiti. Ms. Keesey, thanks a lot.

KEESEY: Thank you for having me today.



Give Love Home Page


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