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Poop Could Be the World’s Next Big Energy Resource

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The world is flushing billions of dollars of energy down the drain every year, according to a United Nations research report released this week. The paper, from the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health, finds that biogas obtained from worldwide supplies of human poop could power up to 138 million homes. 

The UN is determined to halve the world’s untreated wastewater stores by 2030. (Wastewater is any water contaminated by human activity so that it's unsafe to drink.) Much of the world doesn’t have access to adequate sanitation facilities, and an estimated billion people defecate out in the open, causing deadly outbreaks of diarrhea and other illnesses. But in places without sanitation infrastructure, pooping in a field or behind a tree often seems easier than buying toilets and paying for their upkeep. Selling poop’s economic value might help encourage the up-front investment in sanitation, or so the authors of the paper hope.

An anaerobic waste facility in Uganda. Image Credit: Corinne Schuster-Wallace, UNU-INWEH

Biogas, comprised mostly of methane, can be harvested as the bacteria within human waste breaks down inside a sealed container. Afterward, the residue left over can be dried and charred to create a charcoal-like fuel, which also reduces the need to harvest wood for heating. Waste to Wealth—a pilot program in Africa that the Institute for Water, Environment and Health is involved in—is currently testing poop-to-energy technology in institutions like schools and prisons in Uganda. 

Using average estimates for how much a person poops per day and how much energy could be derived from those solids, the report declares that the equivalent of $9.5 billion of natural gas is being thrown or flushed away every year. Even if the waste-energy systems were only used by people who currently practice open defecation, the biogas harvested could be worth more than $200 million per year, generating electricity for more than 10 million households. And suddenly, the clean energy of the future is looking pretty dirty. 

[h/t: CityLab]


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The Best Way to Wipe Your Butt, According to the Experts
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Curtis Asbury, MD sees it all the time. A patient comes in with blotchy, red, irritated rectum and insists they’re not doing anything unusual. Peering into their sore bottom, Asbury nods solemnly, then delivers news most people never expect to hear.

“You’re not wiping correctly,” he says.

A dermatologist practicing in Selbyville, Delaware, Asbury has seen an uptick in the number of people coming in expressing dissatisfaction with their rectal hygiene. Whether it’s due to misguided parental instruction during toilet training or wiping on sheer instinct, some of us are simply not maintaining one of the most potentially dirty crevices of our body. And the consequences can be irritating.

“It’s called perianal dermatitis,” Asbury tells Mental Floss, describing the kind of topical irritation that afflicts people who are wiping poorly, infrequently, or overzealously. In an attempt to clean their rear end, some people scrub so violently that the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons has given a name to the resulting tenderness: Polished Anus Syndrome, or PAS.

Fortunately, the key to avoiding PAS and other rectal misadventures is relatively easy. Here are some pro tips for a clean butt.

GIVE UP WET WIPES

For starters, Asbury recommends that people stop using the pre-moistened cloths, which are heavily marketed to promote a sparkling cavity. Use of the wipes has been associated with allergic reactions to methylisothiazolinone, a preservative used to inhibit bacterial growth while products are on store shelves. “Even the all-natural ones can cause problems,” he says, since any kind of chemical present in the wipes isn’t usually rinsed off right away.

Does that mean you should reach for dry toilet paper instead? Not quite. “It’s healthier, certainly, to clean your body with water," Asbury says. "Nobody takes a dry piece of paper, rubs it over their skin, and thinks they’re clean.” Even the Greco-Romans (332 BCE–395 CE) knew this, as one historical account from the philosopher Seneca revealed that they used a damp sponge affixed to a stick as a post-toiletry practice. Of course, some ancient cultures also wiped with pebbles and clam shells, among other poor ideas, so perhaps we should stick with contemporary advice.

INVEST IN A BIDET

A bidet sprays water out of a toilet
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Asbury is an advocate of the standalone or add-on toilet accessory that squirts a spray of water between your cheeks to flush out residual fecal matter. While bidets are common in Europe and Japan, the West has been slower to adopt this superior method of post-poop clean-up; others might be wary of tapping into existing home plumbing to supply fresh water, even though DIY installation is quite easy. For those patients, Asbury has developed an alternative method.

TRY PAPER TOWELS AND WATER

“What I tell people to use is Viva, a really soft, thick paper towel made by Kleenex,” he says. “You get a squirt bottle and you leave it near the toilet and moisten the paper towel.” Regular toilet paper is usually too flimsy to stand up to a soaking, while normal paper towels are too harsh for rectal purposes. Viva is apparently just right. (And no, Asbury is not a brand ambassador, nor does Kleenex endorse this alternative use.)

This advice does come with a major caveat: Viva wipes are not flushable and might very well clog your pipes if you try to send them down the drain. When Asbury recommends the technique, he advises people to throw used towels in the trash. If you find that idea appalling, and provided your butt is not already red from bad wiping strategy, lightly moistening a wad of durable toilet paper should do the job.

DRY THOROUGHLY BUT GENTLY

Once you’ve wiped enough to see clean paper, take a dry square and mop up any excess moisture. Whether it’s wet wipes or bidets, some people don’t bother with this step, but “it would be weird not to dry,” Asbury says. Occasionally, moisture can lead to intertrigo, which is irritation in skin folds, or a fungal infection.

You also want to have a soft touch. “I see people scrubbing hard,” Asbury says. “That just makes the problem worse.” Excessive wiping can lead to micro-tears in the anal tissue, causing bleeding and discomfort.

WIPE IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

Make sure to go from front to back, pushing waste away from the groin. This has traditionally been advised for women to keep poop away from the vaginal canal and prevent urinary tract infections. While Asbury hasn't found specific studies to back up this advice, he still believes it's likely more hygienic. There’s also something to be said for sitting while wiping, since ergonomically, it may keep your perianal area open. But if you’re uncomfortable reaching into the toilet to wipe, standing should suffice.

Assuming you’ve done all that and you’re still feeling discomfort, Asbury warns it might be something else. “If you’re not feeling clean, there could be issues with your sphincter,” he says. Weakened muscles can cause leakage. But generally, it’s dry-wipers who have trouble getting everything they need to get. For the hard-to-clean, Asbury advises that they make the switch to a bidet.

“It’s cold at first,” he says. “But you get used to it.”

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The Secret to a More Pleasant Flight? Urinals
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Even if you can deal with the lack of legroom, privacy, and decent meal options on airplanes, your patience may start to wear thin when it comes time to pee. Being stuck waiting in long bathroom lines on planes may feel like one of life's unavoidable annoyances, but according to WIRED, there's a way to make the experience more tolerable. The secret involves urinals and a bit of math.

At last month's Crystal Cabin Awards, a competition that recognizes innovation in aircraft interiors, Zodiac Aerospace introduced the Durinal, a two-urinal plane bathroom that takes the place of one toilet. Replacing a bathroom that serves all passengers with one that's made for only half the population may seem like a quick way to make the long-line problem worse, but there's some logic behind the proposed solution.

As Wouter Rogiest, a mathematician at Ghent University in Belgium, tells WIRED, gender-neutral bathroom lines are shortest when men have the option to head straight for a urinal. That's because it's quicker to use a urinal than a stall, and when men opt for the urinal, it frees up stalls for women. When he drew up an equation looking at hypothetical bathroom wait times at a concert, he found that a ratio of 14 toilets to eight urinals produced the most desirable wait times: one minute, 27 seconds for women and slightly under a minute for men. On a commercial plane, this ratio would come out to one or two Durinals per six conventional bathrooms.

Rogiest's concert equation isn't a perfect stand-in for airplane scenarios, so a more specific study would be needed before airlines could consider installing urinals. Unfortunately, if bathrooms with urinals do show up on airplanes, you can expect the spaces to be just as tight as they are now.

[h/t WIRED]

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