Can we recycle human waste into a useful resource?

July 6th, 2015

In the national sanitation survey in Bangladesh in 2003 it was observed that only 58% households had some form of latrines whereas the remaining 42% of households had no latrines at all.

With a special compost from human wastedrive undertaken by the Government of Bangladesh and development partners with the active engagement of local government institutions and communities, sanitation progress gained momentum with a focus on building different types of low-cost pit latrines. As a result, the open defecation rate has been reduced to less than 3%. But does this mean the problem has been solved? Not really, rather a second generation sanitation problem has emerged in Bangladesh.

In this country, about 80 metric tons of human waste is generated every day of which only 960 tons is treated at Pagla treatment plant – only about 1%. The question is what happens to the remaining waste?

Less than a quarter of Dhaka city area has a sewerage network. In Dhaka, where there is no sewerage network, more than half of the buildings do not have any proper septic tanks and the sewer pipelines of these buildings are directly connected to either the open drain or to the storm drainage system polluting the surface water and the environment. A huge number of pit latrines exist in rural areas and low income urban communities. Due to the rapid expansion of low-cost latrines, pits fill quickly and require frequent emptying. Even septic tanks (not connected to sewerage network) require emptying at longer intervals.

Growing vegetables with human-sludge-compost is used as manureInterestingly, people in general are not aware about how this waste is disposed and how it impacts the surrounding environment. There is no proper emptying mechanism for pits or septic tanks. In most cases, it is done manually by sweepers when the problem becomes visible by overflowing or creating nuisance. The sweepers dilute the substances with water mixed with kerosene oil and dump it manually to the nearby open drain. Mechanical suction devices such as vacutugs are rarely used and when they are used, they dispose the human waste into open drains or nearby ditches. Current waste removal practices invariably pollute the shallow aquifer.

The country has put enormous emphasis on promoting low-cost latrines without thinking of waste management. Recycling of the human waste by converting it into proper organic fertilizer would be one practical solution. Bangladesh uses around 3.5 million tons of fertilizer every year of which about 2.6 million tons are imported. Government provides a subsidy of around 18 taka (15p) per kg of fertiliser to  farmers. Hypothetically if we could convert the entire amount of human waste produced in the country into organic fertilizer, it will make 3 million tons which will be more than the amount we import every year. Even if we could utilize a certain percentage of this potential, it would be a huge gain for the country. However, this should not only be considered from a monetary perspective; use of this fertilizer will improve soil texture and most importantly, prevent surface water pollution.

vegetable field human-sludge-compost used as manureRecently different actors have shown interest in human waste management and are experimenting on several small scale initiatives. Unfortunately there is no proper human waste management value chain in Bangladesh. Creating awareness among the masses and sensitizing them to their roles as citizens are critically important along with clarifying the roles of the city authorities. Emphasis should be given to introducing technologies in different country contexts and promoting the use of organic fertilizer. Entrepreneurship should be developed for collection and transportation of waste. Most importantly actors like department of agriculture, agricultural universities, research agencies and private sectors should introduce standardization of organic fertilizers and explore marketing strategies for the products. However changing the mindset of the people and the policy makers remains a challenge.


9 responses to “Can we recycle human waste into a useful resource?”

  1. Millat Hossain Says:

    Dear Hasin Jahan,

    Thanks for excellent presentation,I agree with you, I’ve read your article attentively.We should try to change the old system, If we work sincerely for the society,I believe,Its possible to change the system. Now its demand.we are suffering every where in our daily life for by day increasing our risky life.You cant believe it how suffering the peoples of char area? Their daily life activities like , sanitation, ,taking bath, pure drinking water, etc is so much critical.Any way,thanks a lot again for a nice article,I hope your experience will be helpful for the nation, if its implement properly.Pray for you and always with you, for the society, for the humanity and for the greater interest of nation.Any kind of seminar, conference or any voluntary support please inform me.

    Best regards
    Millat Hossain

  2. Haseeb Irfanullah Says:

    Great blog! There is no doubt about the needs to manage human wastes and the potential to transform those into a ‘product’ with monetary value.

    Although touched upon in the last sentence, acceptability of human-waste-grown-products by the mass is a huge challenge, if not the biggest.

    Health and safety issue is very much linked with it, and needs sufficient attention. It is particularly important in Bangladesh where transferred technologies are often modified for greater profits ignoring health, safety, consumers rights and of course ethics.

    Many thanks for initiating the discussion.

  3. Engr.Md.Shahadat Hossain Says:

    Nice article apu. For an integrated approach, strategic Waste Management Model (WMM) planning should be taken by the waste management authorities of DCC or other city of our country.The modified communal bins can help to minimize waste dumping as well saves collection and disposal cost. Lack of Management Information System (MIS) contributes to a
    complicated process of setting for proper human waste storage, suitable routes assignment for trucks, etc. Management of human waste at primary and secondary level at waste collection should be conducted at the pilot area. So, a Community Management Information (CMI) System should be built considering waste generation, collection and transportation properly.
    Thanks a lot.

  4. Sagar Says:

    Enjoyed reading the post. It has nicely articulated a contemporary development and policy issue. I agree changing people’s mindset is a big challenge. However, considering recent changes in different social parameter in Bangladesh, I believe it is possible. May be it requires some times.

  5. Md. A. Halim Miah Says:

    After a long time I have read such a policy influencing popular editorial like write up on country sanitation status and and way forward to drive next generation sanitation practices. Development practitioners particularly work on urban development, health and sanitation promotion and city planner could be benefited by capturing the knowledge from this thought provoking article , which is small but beautiful as this is provided a rad map of future city planning- a livable, healthy and safer city. As long working experience in policy advocacy practitioner here I get some linkages with upcoming global priorities of Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 6, Goals 11-12), Constitutional obligations to take such initiatives for rural development and agricultural revolution ( article :16), Public health and morality ( article :18) with links other national sectors policies like Agriculture Policy, Agriculture Extension Policy and Bangladesh Bank CSR policy to promote green financing ( that includes renewable energy, vermicompost production etc.). Finally, we are very worried as currently approved budget (2015-16) that has reduced the monetary allocation in Water and Sanitation sector. Its true that we have very positive achievement in pit latrine use with many limitations for a sustainable sanitation development ( Which Ms. Hasin already illustrated in her write up) but for transformation into a second generation sanitation government should rethink to reallocate investment for achieving the global targets as well as uphold the constitutional obligations.

  6. William Says:

    This should be mandatory worldwide… Here in the USA it is viewed as repulsive.. I have no need for fertilizer personally, but there is a facility that does this nearby… It is given away for free… The manager of the station told me very, very few people come and take advantage of this free service… They would rather buy synthetic fertilizer…

  7. cliff jarrell Says:

    a simple system made from two drums, two plastic garbage pails, some tubing and misc can take a daily input of humanure and grass clippings, etc to produce enough methane gas to cook food for a family of four. a daily outflow of slurry is excellent fertilizer, but would be better composted to heat kill any remaining bacteria, parasites and deal with the issue of smell. small scale, locally produced equipment that is durable, relatively low cost, and low maintenance is one solution to the humanure problem. produce and use the byproduct as close to initial source as possible. heifer international has diagrams of similar equipment they made. one pig produced enough gas for the owner’s family of four. does not reduce the value of the manure as soil amendment. the effect on soil texture and microbial activity are also very important.

  8. S. M. Alauddin Says:

    Excellent blog! The subject is a very important and contemporary one! She has brought the background of the issue nicely and shown its huge potential with sufficient evidence. If we can recycle human waste, we can have huge manure for agricultural production! Besides, the human waste has high potential to generate gas and electricity and can contribute to these where the country has been facing tremendous pressure of sufficient gas and electricity supply for commercial and industrial production. Human waste is an endless resource in the country having very high potential, but we can’t use it, mainly because of peoples’ negative attitude. However, use of human waste as manure in agriculture is a very old practice. Earlier, when the kutcha toilet (earthen pit) would filled up, they covered it mainly with ashes and would dig another pit adjacent/ suitable place for new toilet. The filled one, covered with ashes would turn into soil within 1.5 – 2 years. This is, in fact, very high quality manure, which the farmers have been using traditionally as organic fertiliser in agriculture for production. The use of pit latrines increased tremendously in the last 25 years, which, once filled up is left by covering with ashes and later use as manure.

    This is very important to observe that people are using manure from human waste for agriculture, but not using the gashes generated from human waste! What a reverse one! If there is any harmful ingredient in manure can easily enter in human body through food chain! However, there is no such possibility in case of gas, but people’s attitude are not positive towards its use for cooking. Changing peoples’ mindset is a big challenge, but not impossible. Changes are taking place, though, in a slow pace, but possible to make a quick shift if sufficient awareness programme is taken by government, NGOs/INGOs, Imams of mosques and other religious leaders. Need long-term plan for it. It’s a huge and endless resource that can significantly contribute to produce manure and gases to the cause of development. The kitchen waste is also such a huge and endless resource and could be used in a planned way for manure, gas and electricity production!

  9. Mandy Mepham Says:

    Humanure is of huge importance to the producivity of the soil. Polluting our precious water &/or detoxifying chemically is so shortsighted! What is needed is an understanding of the mix required & the time needed for human waste to decompose safely (i.e. without risk of infection) to leave the highest quality fertiliser imaginable. We are contaminating this precious resource on a daily basis. It requires a change in understanding about what is ‘clean’ & what is ‘dirty’. Once this education has been achieved we sill be much better off globally – especially those with a need for sanitation, clean water, & improved land fertility. Once you achieve this shift in thinking there is no going back – I now feel ‘dirty’ when I use a flush toilet, for example. We have the knowledge, it just needs our recent prejudices about so-called cleanliness to be disabused. Hopefully the developing regions can skip our errors in the West & do it right first time!

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