Sustain RCA Talk On
Making It Your Business

To mark World Toilet Day (19 Nov) we were privy to No.2 in this years series of talks on Sustainable Design, at the RCA, London. Organised and presented by Clare Brass of Sustain RCA, the talk, of course, was about excrement. It raised the question of why we see it as waste, when it’s so rich in minerals? Shouldn’t it be a resource? We don’t value our poo at all, and this wasn’t always the case. In 1910 in Tokyo it was valuable and was sold. It could raise enough to pay rent on a small apartment.

To get things moving the RCA had prepared bags of P**CORN to hand out to the audience. It looked like popcorn to us – so what was the mystery? We were told we’d find out later, but we were hungry, so we ate it anyway.

Barbara Penner Senior Lecturer The Bartlett School of Architecture UCL

The speakers were selected to give a broad context around the subject; first was Barbara Penner, a toilet historian and author on the subject. Her books include Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender and she is also presently completing “Bathroom: A Cultural History of the Bathroom” (Reaktion).

In taking steps towards more sustainable treatment of human waste, Barbara says it’s important for us to believe change is possible, because our current sewage system is so entrenched. Any transition from this would be a big undertaking and would be expensive. Currently sewer improvements are likely to be repairs of, or modifications to, what currently exists. It would take a brave architect, or town planner, to create an alternative on a grand scale, and to prove that it worked.

Sewers are also socio-orientated; our behaviour is driven by what we’ve inherited, so how do we question convention and start to do things differently? Acceptance of change is as relevant to us as it is to those in the developing world.

Today we have the same system for drinking as we do for waste. We treat all water to potable (drinking) standards, even though a large percentage of it goes down the loo. An alternative situation might be that human waste can be reused, instead of it being flushed away into our water systems.

This is not a new idea. In the 1800s, Joseph Bazalgette, famous engineer and designer of the London Sewer system, considered a similar proposal, but the scheme was not built.

Before proper sewers, sanitary providers offered both wet and dry systems. In the 1870’s one form of toilet was a metal bucket. Excrement was layered with ash and earth and the bucket contents were collected and processed for fertiliser. Urine was also used in the North of England, in the textile industry.

Alternative forms of sanitation can clearly work, but it was concluded that there should be as little contact as possible with the poo, which lead to the success of the water flush.

Barbara featured the following movements, which through the years have proposed various ways of making better use of what we throw away.

Street Farm House South London by Architect Graham Caine

Plans for Grahame Caine’s Ecological House, or Street Farm House, Eltham, London, 1971-2. The house was a living experiment by Caine, a member of the anarchist group Street Farmers. It was a fully functioning system that converted human waste to methane for cooking. The self-sufficiency of the house represented a political statement against consumerism.


Stop the 5 Gallon Flush (Click this link to see the guide for free).

Stop The Five Gallon Flush, the classic 1973 guide to alternative toilets, from McGill University’s Minimum Cost Housing Group. It describes 80 alternative sanitation systems.


NASA Test Facility Natural Wetlands For Pollution Removal

In the 1970s, NASA researchers began looking into ways to recycle human waste as fertiliser for space gardens and even turn wastewater into clean drinking water. Researcher Bill Wolverton saw that swamps in Florida were successfully cleaning up waters that had been polluted with Agent Orange from a nearby military facility. NASA brought Wolverton to its Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to study the potential of plants to clean up manmade pollution.


New Loos For London? The Bartlett School of Architecture UCL

The recent workshop “New Loos for London?” (8-9 November 2012) considered the viability of dry sanitation options for the capital. It brought together key figures in waste management and water, entrepreneurs, designers and community members. The two-day event included site visits to London Waste’s EcoPark and Thames Water’s Deephams waste treatment facility.


Virginia Gardiner RCA graduate and founder of LooWatt

The second speaker was Virginia Gardiner who has developed LooWatt, a unique toilet system currently being piloted in Madagascar. It uses a biodegradable lining instead of water, creating a clean, odour-free seal. But it’s not just toilets, it’s a whole system, which has come about by rethinking the relationship between us and this thing we all do, every day.

An anaerobic digester converts the toilet contents into energy and fertiliser, bringing potentially huge benefits in health and sustainability, as well as income, to poor rural areas.

Virginia and her team use local labour to construct the loos. The community also run both the energy unit and the compost site.

The chosen site for the first Energy Unit is near the centre of the neighbourhood on a busy pathway.

The completed digester being tested before leaving the factory.

Loowatt are producing biogas that charges mobile phones, radios, batteries and more. Locals can also buy hot water for showering. The toilet and new sources of energy will have an immediate positive impact on the local environment and quality of life. The video below explains the project in more detail.

One of the current problems in places without sanitation is that the water table can be quite high. When basic toilets are dug into the ground, it’s not very far down before water is reached, which means that pollutants are then released into rivers.

Also some areas don’t have a local sewer, so even if the neighbourhood has a collection service, there’s no guarantee it won’t be dumped locally and end up in the water system.

200m from the first Loowatt toilet a young girl dumps a night bucket into the local canal. This is common practice in the area.

There are lots of entrepreneurial projects going on around the world to improve sanitation. Developing communities are not always poor. Although their lifestyles are quite basic, they have money to pay for a sewer system and they want a say in how it fits into their lives. When questioned in Madagascar, 82% would be prepared to use a shared toilet and 98% are willing to pay.

The video below gives a glimpse of the community where Loowatt is happening.

See Loowatt for more details.


Walter Gibson The Biocycle

Walter runs the Sanitation Ventures Project at Bear Valley Ventures. He previously worked as head of bioscience at Unilever and now works closely with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

The Biocycle is a joint project between Bear Valley Ventures and Agriprotein, with a focus in biotechnology. The group began by asking themselves “Does anything eat this stuff?” Their aim was to accelerate the ‘digestion’ of poo, which consists of 70-80% water, bacteria and decaying organic matter.

The Biocycle uses the larvae of the Black Soldier Fly, which quickly devour our would-be waste, drastically reducing its volume and weight. The larvae colony breaks apart its food, churns it and creates heat, increasing the composting action. And the more they eat, the bigger they grow. The larvae have a good balance of fat and protein which are used to make high value biofuel and animal feed.

See an explanation of the project in the video below, featuring the larvae devouring some fish (yipes!) The project has now raised the required funds and is up and running in its test stages.

Their first demo is in Cape Town in 2013, where they’ll be treating waste for real to see how it works.

See Biocycle for more details.

To conclude, every year on World Toilet Day there’s a lot going on, including Toilet Twinning, the fun way to solve a serious problem. See what that’s all about in the video below.

And the ‘P**CORN’?…The corn was grown using urine fertiliser. Mmmm yum! Take a look at this inspired RCA project and find out what’s so great about pee…

More fabulous Sustain RCA Talks are planned…see here for details.