Sanitation project wins kudos from sustainability leaders

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Setting up portable dry toilet in Haiti (Photo: Courtesy Sebastien Tilmans

Around the world, 2.6 billion people lack access to safe sanitation. To address that gap, Stanford civil and environmental engineering doctoral students SEBASTIEN TILMANS and KORY RUSSEL co-founded re.source, an initiative to deploy portable, affordable dry household toilets in the developing world.

Recently, a panel of judges representing NASA, Silicon Valley companies and Bay Area universities, among other institutions, named re.source the Best Overall Solution in the Showcase of Solutions for Planetary Sustainability. The showcase, part of the Sustainable Silicon Valley Water, Energy and Smart Technology Summit at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., on May 23, highlighted “game-changing” ideas “that can scale to have a positive impact for sustainability at a planetary level.” The re.source project beat out nine other finalists.

The project, developed under the guidance of JENNA DAVIS, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, received seed funding from the institute’s Mel Lane Student Grants Program.

Working with the Water, Health and Development program at Woods, Tilmans and Russel recently completed a pilot phase in which they tested several toilet models with users before deploying toilets to more than 130 households in Haiti.

The pilot was conducted in collaboration with Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods, or SOIL, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to protecting soil resources, empowering communities and transforming wastes into resources in Haiti. SOIL continues to operate the sanitation service.

The toilets separate solid and liquid waste into sealable containers that are regularly removed by a service that recovers resources such as compost from the waste. Customers can subscribe to the toilet service instead of buying a toilet at a prohibitive up-front price, and they can take their toilets with them when they move. Mobile tracking technology monitors waste collectors’ performance, maximizes efficiency and minimizes service costs.

Tilmans and Russel said they hope that re.source will help solve the challenge of delivering hygienic household sanitation to residents of dense urban slums. Normally, residents in these areas choose among open defecation, crowded public toilets or expensive private pit latrines that can’t be emptied safely in the narrow alleys.

“The award is significant to us because it recognizes the importance of household-level sanitation across the world,” Tilmans said. “It will help mobilize further investment and efforts in our sector.”

Tilmans and Russel are seeking funding to scale up re.source.

ROB JORDAN, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment