Using waste plastic to build eco-friendly toilets to end open defecation
The relationship between toilets and climate change is a connection we don’t make very often. But the rise in extreme weather events is proving challenging to sanitation systems around the world.
While the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.2 calls for universal sanitation, 4.5 billion people globally lack safely managed services. This problem is exacerbated by rising incidences of extreme weather events, such as floods, which threaten sanitation facilities heightening the risk of contaminating water sources.
Nearly 55 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and this proportion is expected to increase to 68 per cent by 2050. In most densely populated cities in the developing world, untreated sewage and faecal sludge are major causes of environmental and water pollution.
Kenya is one of the countries in Africa with the largest number of people without access to basic sanitation facilities.
According to an annual performance report on water and sanitation released by civil society organisations (CSOs) in November last year, 9.9 million people drink directly from contaminated surface water sources and an estimated five million people practise open defecation.
Collapse of toilets
According to the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census, about 5.6 million Kenyans defecate in the open. A majority (85 per cent) of the open defecation takes place in 15 counties and six counties have rates exceeding 40 per cent, with wide intra-county disparities.
The counties, include Baringo, Garissa, Homa Bay, Isiolo, Kajiado, Kilifi, Kwale, Mandera, Marsabit, Narok, Samburu, Tana River, Turkana, Wajir, and West Pokot. It is against this background that Daniel Birya, a resident of Matsangoni Ward, Kilifi North Constituency in Kilifi County started building makeshift toilets, aiming to end open defecation in his county.
The toilet structure is made of old sacks, while the toilet bowl and waste drainage pipes are made of old used jerricans. At first glance, we could not tell that was a toilet until Daniel explained the whole concept.
“This is a low-flush toilet, only that I have used locally available materials to construct it. It works the same way normal flush toilets do, but here, you have to pour water manually to drain the waste away and there is a pit behind the structure where all the waste is collected,” explained Daniel recently ahead of World Environment Day marked on June 5.
He says the other alternative for a toilet in the area would be pit latrines, but they often collapse, sometimes leading to casualties, because of unstable soil formations. Normal flush toilets, on the other hand, remain a pipe dream for many residents because they are expensive to buy and install, yet people there live below the poverty line.
“We have lost several people in this community as a result of pit latrines collapsing due to the weak grounds,” he says. He reveals that his family members have also had near-death experiences with the toilets, but luckily nobody died.
Daniel recounts in 2000 when he built their first pit latrine, which served its purpose for a short while before a single rainy season sank it forcing the family to start relying on bushes again. His family also faced the wrath of open defecation, since his home is close to bushes that used to serve as a community toilet, including the awful smell, and exposure to diseases caused by lack of sanitation and hygiene, such as diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, among others.
“I used to use a lot of money to pay hospital bills because of Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) related illnesses, but now this has come to an end since I introduced this innovation to the community,” he sighs.
Daniel attributes his projects to training by Compassion International an International Christian Child Development Organisation that is dedicated to saving children from poverty in 2019, which taught him and others how one can build a toilet using locally available resources.
“We were taught that instead of having a pit latrine, which is prone to collapsing, we can have pour-flush latrines, which are safer and there are no fears of falling into the pit. The toilets are also affordable to build because raw materials are readily available and do not use a lot of water,” he explains.
For instance, his family of six uses about 20 litres of water a day, which costs Sh10. He says the pipes used in the construction of the toilet are in place in a slightly slanted position leading to the pit, and therefore, one does not stand directly on top of the pit.
A little water then pushes the waste down into the pit.
Built for free
Experiencing first-hand the benefits of safe sanitation, he is now teaching other community members about the importance of having a toilet and adopting good hygiene practices to sustain healthy outcomes.
So far he has helped more than 20 households to put up the toilets. Agnes Nafasi is one of the beneficiaries of this innovation.
A mother of eight, Nafasi says since her family started using the toilet, she feels her family is safe when answering the call of nature, unlike before when they had the fear of toilets collapsing, diseases and even attacks by animals or strangers when her children went to the bushes to help themselves.
“I no longer have to accompany my children to the bush now. We use this toilet, which is in our compound. Daniel didn’t charge us to construct this toilet, we only availed the materials and dug the pit and he did the rest,” she says. Nafasi says the introduction of toilets has also reduced cases of sexual harassment and early pregnancies, as well as, school absenteeism in the area.
“When I was approached by Daniel and his team to have the toilet put up in my home, I was resistant. But after seeing how toilets are saving lives and money for my neighbours, I agreed to have one. I am glad that now, my hospital visits have reduced because I no longer get sick of WASH-related diseases and it has helped me save some money,” says Nafasi.
Yvonne Monje, 23 is another beneficiary of this innovation. She is grateful that the design of the toilet allows her and other girls in her village to dispose of their used sanitary towels without causing blockage because the pipes are wide enough to accommodate the napkins.
She says the introduction of the toilet has provided freedom, health, and dignity for women in the area. “Since this toilet was constructed in our home I no longer worry about my menstrual hygiene since the toilet is always clean. I also dispose of my used pads in the pit, unlike before when I used to dispose of them in the open,” said Monje.
She says if all women in affected areas embrace the use of the toilets, cases of sexual harassment, rape, and sexual violence, as well as health risks that women who have no access to a toilet at home are being exposed to will be minimised.
Fredrick Otieno, partnership facilitator at Compassion International says that such toilet models are suitable for such communities because they are low cost, use locally available materials, resist soil pressures, allow liquid infiltration, resist decomposition, are easy to construct and install, and have a reasonably long lifespan and can be emptied.
“This is a great innovation and I would like to urge those who haven’t embraced it to do so. It is evident that with such innovations, the community will reap a lot of benefits. I would like to thank the innovator because it is because of him that now residents are embracing the use of toilets,” says Fredrick.
He says the organisation, as a result of Daniel’s innovation, has saved between 10 and 20 per cent of the amount they used to pay hospital bills for children who are benefitting from their programmes. Also most importantly, the innovation also serves a double purpose of solving the plastic pollution crisis in the coast region, where an alarming 3.7 kilogrammes of plastic per capita leach into the Indian ocean annually.
Studies show that plastic production and disposal resulted in 850 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 and may be responsible for up to 2.8 billion tons by 2050. With numbers such as these, Daniel and Fredrick agree that real-time innovation and action, such as this will help minimise the effect plastics will have on generations to come.
“Witnessing the harm plastic waste has been causing to marine life besides diminishing the beauty of beaches, has also been our motivation for constructing these toilets, because the use of waste plastics to construct the toilets will help clear them from the environment,” he says.
The process of extracting it from fossil fuels (mostly oil and gas), transporting and manufacturing plastic creates billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG). For instance, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), four per cent of the world’s annual petroleum production is diverted to making plastic, and another four per cent gets burned in the refining process.
A World Bank report says marine plastic pollution breaks down into microplastics and contributes to climate change both through direct GHG emissions and indirectly by negatively affecting ocean organisms.
Plankton takes away from the environment 30 to 50 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions from anthropogenic activities, but after it ingests microplastics, plankton’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere decreases.