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How Loowatt is rethinking the toilet

By Kelly-Ann Prinsloo

Loowatt is an innovative toilet system that makes human waste into a business opportunity by turning it into biogas and compost. Waste isn’t flushed away, rather it is safely and hygienically sealed in a bio-degradable film and stored in a cartridge. These are then emptied into a digester that harvests the gas. At the end of the microbial process, the digestate is delivered to a compost factory where it is mixed with straw and processed by wormery into vermicompost.

The system was tested in the UK with houseboat owners, and is now being piloted in Madagascar. The pilot is based at a public toilet facility in Antananarivo, and the gas is used to heat water for local residents and generate electricity for charging mobile phones. One day’s biogas is enough to deliver 20 hot showers or 1 000 phone charges.

The Loowatt model is a good one for several reasons. It answers an urgent need for safe toilet facilities. It transforms what was a public health liability into clean energy and agricultural inputs. It’s waterless. It is a business in its own right, and therefore economically sustainable and not dependent on charity. And in true appropriate technology style, it uses off the shelf parts and local materials.

As an added bonus, their videos are refreshingly positive and authentically Malagasy, telling the story through the words of local people in a way that would please the team behind the Rusty Radiator Awards.

Of course, this sort of intelligent waste system should not be seen as a developing world solution. The flushing toilet is almost universal, but that doesn’t mean it is the final word in toilet technology.

Loowatt inventor talks biodegradable loos
Virginia Gardiner, the inventor of the Loowat, has never been too self-conscious about bodily functions and their taboos, which is just as well. It was her mission to create a waterless toilet that uses no energy and turns the waste into a useable product, and now, almost 10 years later, Gardiner’s toilet is quickly becoming a standard at music festivals around the world.

The key to the Loowatt system is a biodegradable lining that runs around the bowl. When the ‘flush’ is triggered, the waste is pushed down into the cartridge beneath.

Gardiner was annoyed by the contrast between the ‘flush and forget’ mentality in urban areas in developed countries – where between four and 13 litres of water are used per flush – and the situation in the rest of the world, where two out of every five people in the world have no toilet of any kind. So she began working on a new concept during a Master’s degree at London's Royal College of Art in 2006.

“I realised the best toilet project from my own point of view was to make it waterless, one that turns waste into a commodity and which would work in urban areas,” she says. “Because if you want to do it in a rural area where you are on your own, the technology is already there, but to do it in a city like London seemed to make it more relevant to my life and to the way that globalisation is going – and more challenging: an urban waterless toilet that turns poo into a commodity.”

After abandoning an early idea to use worms to do the composting within the home, Gardiner decided to use biodegradable film to move the waste through the toilet, the fundamentals of which survive in the Loowatt today.

This technology, which is currently in use at many music festivals around the world, can also be used during disaster situations like floods and earthquakes, where inadequate sanitation causes disease to run rampant.

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