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Transforming Human Poop Into Eco-Friendly Fertilizer: #bestjobever

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Channel: National Geographic
Categories: Biology   |   Environmental   |   Science  
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Everyone poops. But who wants to actually deal with it? Ecologist Sasha Kramer literally works with poop and thinks about it every day. She is helping to transform human waste into fertile organic compost for agricultural use in Haiti.

Kramer is an ecologist, human rights advocate, National Geographic emerging explorer, and the executive director of Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL). SOIL primarily focuses on promoting the use of ecological sanitation, a process that uses naturally occurring microbes and heat to convert human waste to rich compost. Ecological sanitation at SOIL means dry composting toilets, which can be simple and low cost so that it works even in crowded, informal settlement communities where there is little infrastructure.

So how exactly does this work? Kramer explains: “The way ecological sanitation, in general, works, is that people have a small in-home toilet, that basically has a five gallon bucket in it, where the poop falls. Each time you poop, instead of flushing with water (which is such a valuable resource), we use some sort of a dry carbon cover material. This would be some sort of agricultural waste that's otherwise not being used. You basically cover it up and then that keeps the smells from coming out … and it keeps the flies from coming in.”

Each week, service agents pick up the buckets, and give clean buckets with the cover material in it. Then those full buckets are transported to one of SOIL’s composting sites. The fleet of “poop mobiles” includes pick-up trucks and wheelbarrows, as some of the corridors in impoverished communities are too small for any type of vehicle. “At the composting sites, it's wonderful because instead of relying on fossil fuel to treat the waste, we really rely on the power of ecological systems. Once we dump the waste most of the work is done by naturally occurring soil microbes.” These microbes naturally heat the piles up to 170 degrees Fahrenheit, which kills the pathogens that make people sick. The staff turns the piles a few times and after about six months, voilà, the finished product is rich soil.

These bucket toilets are not some eco-alternative to other kinds of toilets: they’re often the only dignified option available. Thousands of people in Haiti don’t have a private place to go to the bathroom. “People do what they have to do. If you're in a rural area, maybe you go out and you go behind the tree. Probably most of us have done that too,” Kramer says. “If you live in a very dense urban area, then usually what people do is they use a plastic bag. They go into the most private place they can find. Go in a plastic bag, then throw in that plastic bag in the least offensive place they can find. That usually means the canal, or an abandoned lot.” With a high water table, flooding, canals draining into rivers, and no water treatment, the human waste ends up in the water supply. “What that means is that the water people are using to drink, to bathe, to wash their clothes and to wash their dishes basically has poop in it.”

Turning poop into soil instead of letting it enter the freshwater supply has a direct relationship to public health. Some of Haiti’s toughest challenges include childhood diarrhea and cholera. There is also a problem with decline in soil fertility in rural areas, Kramer explains, and that can create dependency on foreign countries to send fertilizer to restore the soil. “The way to break [the] cycle of environmental destruction is to take those nutrients and instead of allowing them to go into aquatic ecosystems, getting them back onto the soil [to enrich farmland]. One way to do that is through compost production.”

Kramer says that she and the team at SOIL are excited about this work because it’s a way to simultaneously work toward solutions for both the problems of access to dignified sanitation and this problem of declining soil fertility. “One of the reasons that people in Haiti get really excited about ecological sanitation and the fact that we can transform poop into soil is because it means that Haiti is harnessing its own resources. This is a country where people take tremendous pride in independence and local production.” Instead of polluting, it’s an opportunity to rebuild.

“SOIL could never be as successful as we are without having strong connections to community leaders and the places that we work. I believe that the key to our success is that we hire people based on whether they are able to be community leaders. Ninety percent of our staff is Haitian. I have such an amazing team of dedicated, passionate, brilliant people around me everyday, that when you work in an environment like that, you can be knee deep in poop and it's still the best job ever.”

Read more about the philosophy behind SOIL:

Producer/Editor: Carolyn Barnwell
Series Producer: Chris Mattle
Director of Photography/Field Producer: James M. Felter
Graphics: Chris Mattle

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