Setting Poop on Fire Is Worth a Lot of Money

November 3rd 2015

Diana Crandall

A new report released by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) says that burning human waste could harness enough natural gas to power all of the households in Indonesia, Brazil, and Ethiopia combined.

That’s a lot of poop.

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It might sound gross, but this method would help the world in many different ways. In addition to creating the fuel, the report suggests that the “safe, systematic collection of human waste” in low-resource countries has positive outcomes for public health concerns as well as benefits for the environment.

The researchers put a huge price tag on poop, valuing the world's annual waste output at up to $9.5 billion in natural gas equivalent.

What part of the poop do they need?

The report says the researchers are looking for biogas from human waste. The UN report explains that biogas is derived from the decay of organic matter, including fecal matter. Approximately 60 percent methane by volume, biogas is generated when the organic matter decays in an oxygen free environment. It can then be used for fuel.

What can the poop make?

The experts at the UN say that in theory, burning the poop can be used to generate electricity. And, the dried and charred residue of human poop, known as fecal sludge (their words, not ours), could produce two million tons of charcoal-equivalent fuel, which curbs the destruction of trees.

Finally, the report notes that human waste is currently mismanaged in many places, such as India, where 60 percent of people defecate outside. Bloomberg reports that each day, 1,000 children under the age of five die in India from diarrhea, hepatitis-causing pathogens, and other sanitation-related diseases—proof that the mismanagement of this waste can have catastrophic public health effects.

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“When it comes to creating misery and poverty, human waste mismanagement has few rivals,” said UNU-INWEH Director Zafar Adeel. He added:

“If we can demonstrate a simple, cost effective new approach in low-resource settings, if we can successfully make a business case and change the economic paradigm of human waste management, we can advance development, protect the environment and help reduce sanitation problems causing one-tenth of all world illnesses.”

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