Guest Post: The EcoSan Frontier

The following guest post is by Tucker Cahill Chambers, who took the above photo of SOIL’s waste treatment site in northern Haiti, where Tucker spent time with SOIL last week. Here is what Tucker has to say about the experience:

I first encountered ecological sanitation in a little town in the south of France, where I lived on a ecological family farm for a year. An off-the-grid cattle and mule farm atop a windswept and water-scarce plateau, the family made every effort to consume conscientiously and close resource loops wherever possible. Naturally, we used dry toilets and composted the humanure. The more I learned about the ecological benefits of dry toilets, particularly in the context of my own water-stricken home of California, the more interested and excited I became to participate and help promote a change in our relationship with waste, all kinds.

Once back in California, I set out to start a composting toilet business, seeing it as both a great and novel opportunity as well as a vector for educating my local community. It has certainly been an enlightening road and I was fortunate enough to come across the good work of SOIL one day while researching open-air composting operations around the world. Before I learned what SOIL was doing in Haiti, I had never thought too seriously about the problem of global access to sanitation. Learning more about the challenges the world faces in this regard, with as much as a third of the population living without access to a toilet, I realized that ecological sanitation was about much more than amending the resource-thirsty systems and habits of the developed world — it has just as much to do with promoting and providing responsible sanitation options for everyone. After all, ecology is not only about our relationship to the natural world, but also our relationship to one another. Even in the highly-developed Bay Area region of California, access to sanitation is by no means a given, a fact made evident by the recent public debates around homelessness and the free provision of services like showers and toilets to so-called tent cities. So, with my interest in dry toilets redoubled, I reached out to SOIL to see about coming to visit their container-based collection and composting operation. They were kind enough to invite me to their office in Cap-Haitien for a week.

My visit was itineraried/chaperoned by Claire Remington, who met me at the airport, gave me a tour of the composting facility, office, and garden, and answered all my creole questions. Both at the main office and at the waste treatment site Mouchinette, the majority of the SOIL team are Haitian, which speaks to the organization’s commitment to establishing a truly sustainable operation that is well-integrated into the community it serves and supports.

Given my interests, I spent most of my week working at Mouchinette in order to see how the composting process was managed. Dawning hospital scrubs, a facemask, gloves, and rubber boots, I worked alongside the men and women who unload and empty the humanure into large bins; wash and sanitize the buckets; process and prepare the cover material for each household; and manage the composting from initial deposit, through several turnings, to final sifting and storage.

Tucker and SOIL at the waste treatment site

Tucker and SOIL employees arrive at SOIL’s waste treatment site

I also spent a day with the collection team, going around the city to gather full buckets and drop off empty ones. My visit coincided with a heavy rainstorm which ended up flooding many of the city’s streets, including a good portion of the neighborhoods serviced by SOIL. Even with flooding waist-high in some areas, the SOIL collection team made good on their commitment to provide reliable access to ecological sanitation. The container-based toilet design proved its utility in the heavy rain, keeping the human waste from contaminating the environment.

All in all, my visit to Haiti was eye-opening and inspiring. One of the more thought-provoking aspects of the trip was the amount of plastic refuse littering the streets and waterways of Cap-Haitien. Many products regularly consumed in the city are packaged in plastic, and without widespread trash and recycling services, most of the waste ends up accumulating in the environment. SOIL is a great model for an organization that is leveraging a waste stream to create economic opportunity and promote healthier, cleaner living in Haiti. I hope they inspire others around them to take on similar projects, and I am sure that their efforts in educating the public about ecology, health, and the environment will help a great deal.

As for me, I am back in California where I continue to work on my composting toilet project. In 2017 I plan on visiting at least two other organizations involved in ecological sanitation: the Rich Earth Institute in the northeastern United States, who collect and process urine for fertilizing crops; and Nature Commodes in the northwest, who are running the country’s first and only portable composting toilet business. Someone in the waste recovery industry recently described ecological sanitation as a frontier — it certainly feels like it — and I am excited to continue exploring and sharing with all the good people and organizations involved in paving the way.

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