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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 Netherlands Is Paving Its Roads With Recycled Toilet Paper
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There are plenty of bike lanes in the notoriously pro-cycling country that is the Netherlands, but only one is made of toilet paper. In the country's northwest province of Friesland, a 0.6-mile bike path connecting two towns is the first to be paved with recycled toilet paper, according to CityLab.

The TP helps maintain traction on slippery roads, as one expert told CityLab. The recycled toilet paper is used to add cellulose into open-graded asphalt friction course (OGFC), a type of water-permeable blacktop. This type of paving material is better at draining water, an especially important characteristic for surfaces in the Netherlands, where flood control is a necessary precaution. The cellulose helps stabilize the mixture that makes up the asphalt, known as OGAF. The recycling technology used to build the bike lane was developed by the Dutch consultants KNN and the wastewater tech company CirTec.

Two men stand on a paving machine in front of an asphalt bike lane.

There are plenty of materials that contain cellulose, but paving roads is a pretty good use for the one type of recycled cellulose that can’t be incorporated into a lot of other products: the kind that comes into regular contact with poop.

The recycled toilet paper in this case is collected during wastewater processing, where it’s separated out from all that excrement and then sterilized, bleached, and dried for reuse. People tend to not want to come in contact with things that have touched poop, though, so no amount of sterilization makes it OK to turn the product into recycled napkins or other paper products. But since toilet paper is typically a source of high-quality cellulose fibers (from wood chips or recycled paper), it would be a shame to waste it. Hence the pavement, which is mixed at such high temperatures that the manufacturing process would kill off any remaining pathogens that might possibly lurk within the post-treatment TP.

Friesland’s toilet paper asphalt has been around for about a year now, and according to CityLab writer Tiffany R. Jansen, it looks almost identical to the rest of the bike path. The toilet paper-laced asphalt has since been used to pave a parking lot and a dyke in the region, too.

As long as we’re wiping our butts with paper, we might as well recycle the results. Yes, toilet paper grows on trees, but that doesn’t mean we should waste it. Though the cellulose from the toilet paper only makes up about 5 percent of the pavement mixture with this technology, it’s still a good way to make a dent in city waste. Until everyone gets on the bidet train, that is.

[h/t CityLab]

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10 Fascinating Facts About Airplane Bathrooms
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Even if you only fly first class, there’s no getting around the fact that moving your bowels at 36,000 feet is a bit of an ordeal. Airplane lavatories are cramped, turbulence can unseat you, and the line of people waiting just outside the flimsy door can make it difficult to relax.

Despite these drawbacks, airplane lavatories used to be much, much worse. Take a look at 10 facts we’ve uncovered about the past, present, and future of turds on the tarmac.

1. PASSENGERS USED TO CRAP IN BOXES.

 An open cardboard box sits empty
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No matter how boorish your seatmate might be or how loud the wail of the child behind you, be thankful you weren’t one of the earliest pilots or passengers during the aviation explosion of the 1930s and 1940s. Without tanks or separate bathroom compartments, anyone in flight would have make do with pooping in buckets or boxes that would sometimes overflow due to turbulence, splattering poop on the interior; some pilots peed into their shoes or through a hole in the cockpit floor. The first removable bowls were seen at the end of the 1930s, with crew members having to come and empty them out after landing. Removable tanks followed in the 1940s. 

2. THE BRITISH POOPED RIGHT INTO THE SKY.

In 1937, a “flying boat” dubbed the Supermarine Stranraer was put into service by Britain’s Royal Air Force. It didn’t take long for the craft to earn a nickname, the “whistling sh-t House,” owing to one curious design choice: The toilet onboard had no tank or reservoir and opened up to the sky below. If the lid remained open, the passing air would prompt the plane to make a whistling noise.

3. CHARLES LINDBERGH PEED ON FRANCE.

A photo of aviator Charles Lindbergh
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Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh completed his transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927 and met with King George V shortly after touching down. The 33-hour flight led him to ask Lindbergh how he had managed his bodily demands during that time; Lindbergh replied that he had peed into an aluminum container and then dropped it while flying over France.

4. FALLING FROZEN POOP WAS A BIG PROBLEM IN THE ‘80S.

As aviation become more sophisticated, toilets went from merely trying to contain poop to actively trying to fight germs with Anotec, the brand name for the “blue liquid” found in freestanding bowls. Unfortunately, the tanks housing the liquid and the waste were sometimes prone to leakage in the air, prompting giant biohazards to freeze on the hull of planes and then break away as the aircraft began its descent. The apocalyptic poop balls reportedly smashed cars and roofs before Boeing and other manufacturers adopted the vacuum system still in use today.

5. THERE'S BEEN ONE CASE OF CATASTROPHIC GENITAL INJURY.

A look at the interior of a cramped airplane bathroom
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The current pneumatic vacuum system toilets use pressure to siphon waste from the bowl without using much liquid, which keeps the plane from having to carry the additional weight of waste water in the sky. The noise of the violent suction can be unsettling, but it’s rare you’d actually be in any danger. Rare, but not impossible.

An article in the Journal of Travel Medicine in July 2006 [PDF] reported one case of misadventure due to an airplane toilet. A 37-year-old woman flushed while still seated and created a seal, trapping her on the commode. After being freed by flight attendants, she was examined by doctors and was found to have a labial laceration that resulted in “substantial” blood loss. She was treated and recovered fully.

6. THERE’S A TRICK TO AVOID STINKING UP THE PLANE.

No one wants to be the person who exits a lavatory having polluted the pressurized cabin with a foul odor. According to an ex-flight attendant named Erika Roth, asking an employee for a bag of coffee grounds and then hanging them in the bathroom can help absorb any odors produced by your activities.

7. AIRBUS TOILETS CAN REACH POOP SPEEDS OF 130 MPH.

Dubbed the “Formula 1” of airplane toilets, certain Airbus models circa 2007 could produce unbelievable suctioning power. In a demonstration for a journalist (above), their A380 model could move sewage at speeds of 130 miles per hour. The speeds are necessary when bathroom waste needs to travel the length of the passenger cabin to the sewage tanks in the back.

8. THEY’RE GETTING SMALLER.

Already short on space, airplane lavatories might become even more cramped in the future. A 2017 report by Condé Nast Traveler indicated that as older planes are taken out of service, newer-model passenger planes are coming in with modified bathrooms that are up to two inches smaller in width and depth. Industry observers believe the shrinking bathrooms could pose problems for people with disabilities, pregnant women, and those who need to accompany their child into the bathroom.

9. BOEING MIGHT HAVE PERFECTED THE AIRPLANE POOP EXPERIENCE.

A glimpse at Boeing's new UV-equipped sanitized bathroom
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In 2016, the aeronautics company announced a possible solution to the germ-infested poop closets found on planes. Their self-cleaning lavatory uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.9 percent of all surface bacteria. The light would be activated between occupancies to sanitize the space for travelers. Boeing also envisions this lavatory of the future to be touchless, with a self-activating seat and sink.

10. THERE’S A REASON THEY STILL HAVE ASHTRAYS.

Ever wonder why airplane bathrooms have ashtrays built into the wall or door even though smoking is banned on virtually all flights? Because federal regulations still require them. The thinking is that someone sneaking a smoke will still need a place to put it out, and the risk of fire is reduced if they have a proper receptacle.

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