January 7, 2010

Cleaning Up Haïti: Converting Human Waste to Fertilizer through Innovation

On January 4, 2010, CNN posted an article on its website written by Eliott C. McLaughlin, "Group seeks answers to Haiti's woes in its toilets," about an organization that is implementing a sustainable solution of proper sanitation by composting human waste through public dry toilets. Founded by Sasha Kramer and Sarah Brownell in 2006 and based in Cap-Haïtien, Haïti, Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting soil resources, empowering communities and transforming wastes into resources in Haïti. By facilitating the construction of dry toilets that compost human waste to be used as fertilizer, the results include greater access to clean water, greater agricultural output, and reduction of human mortality by preventable diseases.

During my visits to Haïti during the past few years, I have witnessed the impact poor or nonexistent sanitation in the urban areas has on the natural environment and local population. Traveling through Haïti's rural areas, I observed low agricultural output caused by poor soil fertility, soil erosion and lack of fertilizers, which are often cost prohibitive to the impoverished farmer. In identifying the problem further, according to SOIL's website, "16% of rural Haitians and 50% of those in cities have access to adequate sanitation facilities, by far the lowest coverage in the Western Hemisphere. People are forced to find other ways to dispose of their wastes, often in the ocean, rivers, ravines, plastic bags, or abandoned houses."

Why soil? The nonprofit organization explains, "Maintaining soil is the essence of sustainability from both environmental and social perspectives. The basic elements that make up living matter all come from, and return to, the soil. Nutrients from the soil are constantly flowing through all living organisms. Healthy soil retains and cleanses water resources and protects communities from natural disasters. All of humanity is dependant on soil, biologically, economically, socially, and spiritually. Human health, livelihood, and wellbeing are inextricably linked to the soil."

Here is a video that provides additional details about the workings of the dry toilets:

"Toilets are one example of SOIL's outreach," writes Mr. McLaughlin. "The group also holds contests urging children to recycle garbage into something useful and Brownell's husband, Kevin Foos, spearheads a photo empowerment project called 'Looking Through Their Eyes,' which allows children to capture what they love and hate about their communities on film. SOIL also supports special centers in Shada, Milot and Le Borgne where Haïtians can present and test technologies for improving their health, environment and economic independence."

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times posted a video, "American Ingenuity in Haiti," on his YouTube channel about SOIL's worthwhile efforts to resolve a problem that each individual contributes: human waste.


  1. Interesting post. I came across this initiative in Haiti with similar aims to better manage waste to reduce environmental impact while at the UN (featured in the gallery space before entering the general assembly). In 2005 India, Brazil, South Africa and UNDP started a project to create cooking briquettes from trash, necesitating better waste collection and creating employment(at collection end as well as manufacturing of briquettes)while reducing consumption of firewood. They are now looking at replicating the model in other countries.

  2. Thank you, Emily, for your comment. Creating cooking briquettes from trash is a great example about how to convert waste into a useful product while improving the environment and economy. It would be nice to see governments, aid agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to collaborate in systematcally implementing these solutions globally.