Liberation Ecology in Unexpected Places: SOIL’s Porta-potty Makeover
Those of you who have been following SOIL for some time may know that we align with the philosophy of liberation ecology, a paradigm in which “waste” does not really exist, whether it refers to discarded materials or to people. And while it may sound obvious that people cannot be “waste,” the very frustrating reality is that our societies’ most marginalized people are often treated like they are disposable. This is a problem that goes beyond the question of ecological sustainability, and yet it is closely related.
We believe in liberation ecology precisely because it points to the intersection between resource use and equitable social relationships. When we valorize the materials formerly known as waste and the people who work with those materials, the synergy is incredible: suddenly light cracks through broken situations and reveals the abundance of solutions that exist.
This may sound wonderful in theory, but what matters is how we apply these principles in every day life. One of my favorite examples of liberation ecology in action at SOIL, strange as it may sound, is the transformation of old porta-potties. Starting in 2010, aid groups began to donate used porta-potties to SOIL, remnants of attempts to provide sanitation in post-earthquake Haiti. The problems with porta-potties are manifold: they are not a sustainable, ecological nor, arguably, dignified way for people to access a toilet. They are also expensive to construct, import, and maintain. For these reasons we find great pleasure in tearing apart porta-potties at SOIL. We turn them into “EkoMobil” composting toilets that are used at festivals and rented by churches, schools, and individuals. We then use the excess parts for everything from flower planters to fencing.
Throughout, SOIL’s EkoMobil toilets are products human-centered design. In Cap-Haitien, they are currently being constructed by a local group of contractors that supports women on their path to financial empowerment by training them with skills that are typically only accessible to men. We test various prototypes, asking for feedback and tweaking the design to fit the needs of our customers. Right now for example, we are working on making our EkoMobil’s more accessible to people with physical disabilities. Once the final product is finished and in use, it is serviced by the SOIL drum team, and then the compost team transforms the poop into compost over the period of a year.
Unlike a porta-potty, our EkoMobil’s do not stink or pollute the environment. The finished product is not “waste” that has to be disposed of somewhere, but a resource that provides compost where it is badly needed. And throughout the process, SOIL is happily creating livelihood opportunities to Haitians in the sanitation sector in jobs that are increasingly valorized, not stigmatized.