The pandemic has proven our toilets to be crap

For those without access to private toilets, the locks have also made toilets accessible to the public even rarer than they normally are. This has been particularly difficult for the uninhabited population, as well as for people with intestinal and other disorders. In the slums of some of the world’s rapidly growing cities, shared facilities – sometimes the only ones available – often remained open, but made social distancing difficult.

It is not just wastewater treatment infrastructure that is aging or that is at risk; so is the sanitation workforce. In the United States, the industry is facing a wave of retirements sometimes referred to as the “silver tsunami”. As the pandemic began, a few wastewater utilities, fearing they would lose their critical and hard-to-replace older workers to illness or worse, closed their facilities with workers inside for shifts of a day. week, so that the virus cannot enter. In India, sewer cleaners, often from a highly stigmatized caste, petitioned the government for basic personal protective equipment so they could continue to do their critical work.

The solution to our poo problem is not only to rebuild conventional infrastructure, but also to embrace a variety of newer innovations, as well as encourage new ones, which will make our toilets much better – healthier, more sustainable and more equitable. For this to become a reality, state and local governments will need sufficient funding as well as new public policies that create incentives.

Fortunately, the Biden administration appears to be taking steps in the right direction. The recent president infrastructure bill calls for modernize “aging water systems [that] threaten public health in thousands of communities across the country. (The exact amount that will go to wastewater in particular is not yet clear.) An infusion of federal funding could open up many avenues for improvement: Where centralized infrastructure already exists, cities can use both established and new tools to extract wastewater from heat, water, nutrients, chemicals and precious metals, as well as biogas and other forms of fuel far more than they already do; digital sensors adapted to the harsh sewer environment can help overcharged systems use pipes smarter and reduce spills; new facilities can extract used toilet paper from wastewater before it is processed and recycle it into cellulose, a raw material with wide applications, or even valuable industrial chemicals. With the right tools, even fatbergs – masses of frozen garbage that cause damaging and expensive sewer blockages – can turn into biofuels thanks to the oils, fats, and greases they contain, although it’s better for people to turn into biofuels. stop rinsing wipes and discarding oils. in the sewers.

And there are also more radical reinventions in the pipeline. Small distributed systems that treat toilet waste and reuse water on site (in buildings or communities) grow rapidly. Container-based sanitation companies strive to provide a regular pick-up service. And “urine diversion” toilets, which separate nutrient-rich, low-pathogenic urine from feces and water, act more like recycling bins than bins. These innovations can be more adapted to difficult contexts, more resistant to extreme events, have lower climate impacts, pollute less and produce resources such as clean water, compost, fuel and even insect protein. They could also create income streams and provide secure, well-paying jobs in sanitation, jobs that attract the kind of young, environmentally conscious and diverse workers the field needs. Many of these concepts are in the pilot and demonstration phase; to make this a reality on a larger scale, they need more investment, government policies that support their efforts and the buy-in of ordinary people who are willing to overcome disgust to become the first to adopt technologies of innovative toilets.

Other promising innovations have to do with these little pieces of coronavirus genetic material in shit. The toilets and sewers efficiently collect stool samples from us every day. Scientists around the world have already analyzed the wastewater, providing feedback to public health experts and policymakers on new outbreaks, trends and the effects of rules and restrictions. They even managed to catch and stop epidemics early on. settings like college dorms. It is not difficult to imagine the medical toilets of the future –like the one that is already on the market for nursing homes for the elderly– notifying us when we have been infected. These efforts could continue to bear fruit for years, even after the pandemic, in terms of monitoring not only the coronavirus but other diseases and health threats.

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