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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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Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP/Getty Images
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Design
Better Sit Down for This: Japan Wants to Modernize Its Squat Toilets for the Tokyo Olympics
Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP/Getty Images
Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP/Getty Images

Culture shock abounds in every foreign country, but few experiences can be as off-putting to an international tourist as walking into a bathroom and encountering a toilet you don't entirely know how to use. Perhaps that's why, in advance of the influx of tourists headed to Japan for the 2020 Summer Olympics, the country is looking to modernize its traditional squat toilets. According to Lonely Planet, the Japanese tourist ministry is trying to encourage municipalities to update their public restrooms with the Western-style toilets that visitors might be more accustomed to.

Though Japan is known for its elaborate, high-tech toilets with built-in bidets, seat heaters, and other perks, many of its public bathrooms have more simple accommodations. According to the country's tourist bureau, out of the 4000 public toilets near Japan's major tourist hot spots, around 42 percent are of the squatting variety rather than the kind with a raised bowl and seat. Now, squat toilets aren't just holes in the ground—they're usually made of the same materials most sitting toilets are and have flushing mechanisms. Except with a squat toilet, the flat ceramic pan is placed at ground level so you can crouch over it to do your business.

To make international visitors who are particular about their toilets more comfortable as they tour Japan, the Japan Tourism Agency has started offering subsidies for local governments that want to renovate their public restrooms. These grants are also available to private businesses and councils, according to Lonely Planet. The money can be used to either add more Western-style toilets or update existing models. (We can only hope some will take the opportunity to buy the kind that plays music.)

It's a bit of a shame that the Japanese government is so invested in getting rid of the country's squat toilets, because squatting is probably better for your health, at least when it comes to hemorrhoids. But at least it will be a welcome change for people with bad knees.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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