Container Based Sanitation at World Water Week

My thoughts on the opportunities around the sanitation economy, specifically as it links to container based sanitation, after what I learnt at the Stockholm World Water Week.

Toilet Board Coalition (TBC)

From their website, “the TBC is a unique business-led partnership with the ambition to address the global sanitation crisis by accelerating the Sanitation Economy. The TBC is enabling private sector engagement; connecting large and small companies; and ensuring close collaboration between private, public and non-profit sectors with the common goal to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6), universal access to sanitation.”

The ‘sofa session’ at the Stockholm World Water Week gives more context, titled “A ‘new grid’ approach to Sanitation & SDG 6.2
The video (30 minutes) is at and apparently can be downloaded.

This graphic from the TBC website illustrates what they are trying to do, clearly inspired by the circular economy graphics by the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

To me, container based sanitation (CBS) is the best way to realise the sanitation economy. I was pleased to see the amount of attention given to CBS at the Stockholm World Water Week, and I learnt much about what is out there. Primarily, it was good to learn about the container based sanitation alliance (CBSA).

Container Based Sanitation Alliance

The big six

The founders of the CBSA are what I call ‘the big six’. They are all quite small, and needing to scale, which is why they created the alliance: “We seek to formalize CBS as a widely accepted and endorsed approach among municipalities and regulators, help sanitation services to reach scale, and achieve sustainable impact in urban areas around the world.” The big six:

The big need in CBS

As discussed in the business of sanitation post, the need is in bridging the gap – getting to scale. I think the biggest thing is to build the customer base, but the business model also needs to adapt. I can’t see the companies taking care of every step in the cycle, as they function better at different scales and require different skillsets.

I would also say the urine seems to still be a challenge, or disposed as a seepaway. From a (bio)processing perspective the urine is really the most valuable raw material here.

Where next for me?

Let me just say again: I am not interested in ‘dry toilets for poor people’. I am interested in pro-poor toilet systems that are best suited to the sanitation economy. I believe CBS is that solution, and I believe we can make it fashionable and desirable to everyone. I believe dry toilets will become more desirable than flush toilets, in any context. Even in high rise buildings in developed countries (My recent talk at the Dry Toilet conference in Tampere also talks to this).

The sanitation chain needs different partners. User interface – collection – storage – transport – processing, and let’s add feedback or the information layer that supports it all, which also has sub-layers.

For each of these there are different, best type of partners.

  1. User interface
    A company like Separett, the ‘creme de la creme’ of dry toilets is a suitable partner – it’s really about the brand power here. Kohler is another one.
    ** An information layer can fit in here with a daily health indicator (This is not my interest but some basic things should be easy to put in here)
  2. Collection &
  3. Storage
    ** An information layer fits in here in terms of process control, contamination status – the bioprocess indicators
    This is also incorporated into the user interface – the toilet, but this is where bioprocessing starts, we need more work on the inoculum, what can be added here and what the storage vessel looks like to optimise this. Together with the bioprocess we need a pleasant smell, and a way to transfer well – something that stops the shit from sticking to the walls. Loowatt has a biofilm, black soldier fly can be optimised for this, even sawdust works when the users are jacked up about how to use it, so there are existing options. I would like to develop a fungal matrix here, perhaps partnering with Corpuscoli. The challenge here in terms of partners is combining the ‘flush/incinerate and forget’ model of Separett with the needs of bioprocessing.
    I would also like to have these toilets not need changing the home’s infrastructure, not need ‘lock-in’. Just like you can change your fridge or couch, you should be able to upgrade your toilet.
    ** An information layer fit in here to facilitate payments, collections, troubleshooting.
  4. Transport
    Solid waste management companies understand the logistics here well, but I think a new company may be better suited because the material should not be contaminated with other wastes, and transport to decentralised (e.g. 10 000 people, 2km2 type nodes) may be best. This is the current weak point of the whole model. Agriculture also have lessons here. Existing companies like the big six and ECOlaTRINE works in this space but I see challenges for scaling.
  5. Processing
    This is my strength, but there is not enough research here. Urine-processing to valuable fertiliser products is reaching maturity, but I would like to see higher value adds, for example to products like melamime resin or guanidine carbonate catalysts. We need to relook what urine used to do, and then improve on that based on what we have learnt from green chemistry. Similarly we need to improve research on faecal sludge, and particular fungal bioprocesses – in lower water environments. I am not sure companies like Borealis or Omnia are suitable, as they seem more focused on bulk rather than fine chemicals. This probably also needs to be a new company, that functions like a cooperative that collects the smaller amounts of products produced and centralised it for product formulation and quality control.
  6. Information layer
    Bioteria is a suitable partner here as they seem to have cracked the managed service aspect.
  7. Policy, interacting with municipalities etc.
    Not my interest; ideally I would like to do this entirely independently of any bureaucratic interference. One can dream 🙂 Realistically public utilities are important, as are the laws, regulations and incentives considering CBS.

I think the best use of my skills here is to act as a broker or translator, bringing the different partners together and then see where the gaps and frictions are, and solve those. I think I do need to maintain a research link because a lot of the things need R&D, but these funds need to come from other places than South African state-based funding, we’re just struggling too much there.

Next steps:

  • Urine review article
  • Faecal sludge fungal products review article
  • Roadmap for Cape Town – including the size of the business potential, different scenarios
  • A website where people can buy Separett, Bioteria products (including Pure Effect) – something like “Bring the good bugs back”
  • This website can have a sister website or a section building the ecosystem – perhaps a South African branch of the CBSA.


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