Pros and Cons of sustainable portable toilets in Germany

The following post was written by guest blogger Kevin Kuhn of NonWaterSanitation.de:

In this article, I´d like to talk about one topic which is not very common in the field of sanitation. I am talking about rentals for portable toilets for any kind of events, construction sites, or festivals, but even for parks, beaches, e.t.c. for the long-term.

Why is it worth talking about it?
The sanitary situation on the sector for portable toilets is catastrophic. Sometimes it is worse than the situation in third world countries! At the moment people leave their homes and go to a crowded place, and it is nearly impossible to find proper sanitary installations. Most of the time they have a disgusting odour, they are stuffed with waste and the dirt doesn´t even let you think about sitting on it. If you know one of these plastic toilets, you will definitely recognize your experience with distaste. The worst situation appears on festivals for 2-5 days. During these events, people don´t have any possibility to enjoy a normal toilet. I have heard about people getting communicable diseases and constipation after such a weekend. So let me ask you, is that a situation which we can except in a far developed society like ours?

Following this main problem, there are also the questions of sustainability in sanitation. The supply of cabins made out of plastic, does not seem to be a good solution for solving greater problems like declining resources of oil and climate change. They are very energy- and resource intensive in their production and cleaning processes. Special trucks are needed to collect the waste, to transport these bulky cabins and to clean the toilets via high-pressured water. A last point to be mentioned is that waste-water treatment is really struggling with the waste in those toilets through tampons or other sanitary products. Apart from that, the nutrients of urine and feaces are lost while treated in those facilities. This should let us also think about the externalities of supplying sanitation facilities.

There is a green solution
To solve the problems we are tackling, we have to rethink the production of toilet cabins, the treatment of the waste, and mainly the service around toilets.

Sustainable production of toilets: The current dominating plastic toilets have two advantages: they are light and they are easy to produce in masses. But using local wood instead as the main component makes it easier to disassembly them. The toilets are also light and it is a renewable resource.

The treatment of human waste: The treatment will be done through composting the collected material, in the same way it is done in private gardens or Ecosan projects. Sustainable mobile toilets are composting toilets. This means that there is a barrel under the toilet seat which can easily be removed and exchanged. Also there is no energy and no water used to convert human waste into valuable humus.

Service around toilets: It starts with using grid material to avoid any kind of distaste and odour. To achieve this, chipped wood will be used. This can easily absorb the moisture and is biodegradable. Also there is a need to raise awareness for sanitation, which can be achieved by having an employee who supervises the toilets and promotes sustainable sanitation, or through special offers like Tippy-Taps or music.

Compost toilets at Weltfest in Berlin, Germany, 2013
Compost toilets at Weltfest in Berlin, Germany, 2013

The revolution already started! But just began in central Europe.

If you do a quick Google search, you will find some worldwide festivals which are trying to have a share of 100% from sustainable toilets. Some examples include the BOOM festival in Portugal, Natural Event in Australia, and many smaller suppliers in England and France. Their goal is to make sanitation fascinating. Thus they have colourful toilets, easy-going staff, or even a DJ. There are actually people dancing in front of toilets. Some of the suppliers are taking a pay-per-use fee, some get paid by the organiser. But what they all have in common is the problem of logistics. Because serving toilets and treating faecal matter of 1000s of people needs a master plan. Mostly there are waste containers used, because the wheels lighten the transport. Afterwards it will be collected in larger containers and transported to a local farmer or any other composting site.

That works well for festivals, where mostly young people go to and most of the festivals in Europe try to start building their own composting toilets. But how is the market for one-day events like a street party, a family party, or construction sites so far? For that kind of service there is still no clear answer. This is mainly because organisers don´t know about this alternative. Another reason is the higher price that is still needed; like in any other breakthrough technology, new competitors have financial disadvantages.

In Germany and Switzerland, a few smaller companies were established in the last two years. EcoToi is working in the area of Berlin, nowato in Frankfurt/Main, Goldeimer in Northern Germany and Kompotoi in Switzerland. Thus, they are spatially separated and can´t compete with each other. But every one of the companies has the same problems:

  • costly and laborious production of toilets
  • a small budget and mostly depending on sponsorships
  • a small staff
  • high transportation cost
  • suppliers for conventional portable toilets canoffer lower prices
  • they just have a small stock on toilets (2-8), which is not sufficient for most organisers
  • lack of knowledge about alternative portable toilets

One advantage all the teams have right now is that some social groups are willing to pay a higher price for a green product. Almost every of these firms want to donate their gains to sanitation projects. This kind of corporate sustainable responsibility is well appreciated by the costumers, though the gains are too small until now, to create a noteworthy impact. The fact that these toilets offer more comfort is very important for those users. Also, there is still some uncertainty about the law situation for recycling of human waste. Until now mostly farmers and biogas plants take care of it with their own responsibility. But still the major target for the future will be to be financially independent and to up-scale the business and compete with conventional suppliers.

What do you think about the way to make sustainable portable toilets well-known as a better alternative? Should there be room for this kind of innovation?

If you have any comments, ideas, or concerns, please write me an E-Mail: Kevin.kuhn@nonwatersanitation.de // www.nonwatersanitation.de

Caution: Cholera!

The following post by guest blogger Thilo Panzerbieter of the German Toilet Organization (GTO) refers to the GTO activities during WWD2013:

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On this year’s World Water Day, 200 school pupils from five schools assembled at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and confronted Germany’s Federal Minister of Development, Dirk Niebel, with “dirty water”, placards and various other diplays. This provocative gesture intended to remind Niebel that 783 million people still live without access to clean water and 2.5 billion have no adequate sanitation.

The school children highlighted that the consumption of contaminated water causes more than 3.4 million annual deaths and demanded more prioritisation of the topic. Beside causing cholera, typhoid and other diarrheal diseases, insufficient water, sanitation and hygiene results in children missing 443 million school days per year, according to UNDP.

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Federal Minister Niebel thanked the students for their creative presentations and agreed that water is the most valuable good, which cannot be replaced by anything else, and which is not available in sufficient quality for most poor people. He stressed that he is also working for improved water and sanitation, despite the taboos associated with “toilets”.

In order to show solidarity with the many children that have to carry water over great distances in other countries, the pupils in Berlin continued on a public demonstration through the governing quarter of Berlin – making lots of noise for an issue which causes way too many silent deaths world over.