2013-08-22 / News

Local scientist builds green toilet at community farm

By Ken Shane

Dr. Steve Mecca built a toilet at the community farm that only uses 50 centimeters of water per flush. 
Photo by andrea von hohenleiten Dr. Steve Mecca built a toilet at the community farm that only uses 50 centimeters of water per flush. Photo by andrea von hohenleiten Dr. Stephen Mecca of Jamestown is intent on making a difference in the world, and he is well on his way to doing it – and islanders won’t have to travel to Africa to get a glimpse.

Although the scientist’s primary field of expertise is nuclear physics, his inventions in the field of public health are garnering a great deal of attention.

Five years ago Mecca was invited to be a visiting professor in Ghana. While there he became appalled by the health situation, especially as it related to sanitation. He became determined to do something about it.

Knowing that diarrhea is the leading cause of death for children in the developing world, Mecca set out to create an affordable toilet that could be made with local materials and be flushed with less than 50 centimeters of water.

Using grants from Providence College (where Mecca teaches) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he created a prototype and shipped it to Seattle last summer for the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. There were about 35 other participants.

Using money from the Gates Foundation, Mecca was able to demonstrate the viability and technology of the toilet. Earlier the head of the foundation’s water sanitation group had flown to Ghana to see Mecca’s prototypes in the field.

“They basically said we had a solution for the problem of sanitation in the developing world,” Mecca said. “Then the trick was to get it to impact a lot of people.”

The question of how to scale up the technology had several issues. Mecca said in many ways resolving those issues has been more difficult than developing the technology. One of the big issues is whether to use a factory-produced model and have it shipped, or to produce the toilet on site using locally sourced materials. Mecca chose the latter course of action.

It took a lot of work in the lab to design a toilet that could be made from materials found in any rural village around the world. At this point, every part of the toilet is produced locally. Mecca’s organization, Global Sustainable Aid Project, works with local nongovernmental organizations and agencies to help empower local toilet makers.

“It was a good decision because it creates business opportunities for the toilet maker in a village,” he said. “And it helps the village to solve the sanitation problem.”

The other problem was getting the price down. The original factory-built prototypes went for $1,200. Mecca knew he needed to cut the cost to about $300 per unit, and he’s just about there. A local toilet maker can produce up to three a week and make $100 profit per toilet. By comparison, a stonemason in Ghana makes about $10 a day.

“You can see the tremendous opportunity there is for advancement and community development here,” he said.

Mecca will return to Ghana next week to train 25 toilet makers. He expects within the next two years his toilets will be everywhere in Ghana. His organization is also close to having operations in Nepal, Haiti and Nigeria, with other countries also expressing interest.

The latrine is known as the GSAP Microflush Biofuel Toilet. Mecca developed the valve in his lab at Providence College. It is paired with a locally produced digestive filter to create the desired effect. The professor has recently completed the second edition of the 80-page training guide that teaches locals how to build it.

The materials include a few pieces of PVC pipe, a T-joint, a small piece of rebar, two recycled water bottles, and a Teflon pie pan. The basic model includes a bucket that provides water for hand washing. That water is then dumped into the toilet for use with the next flush. There is also a version that includes a sink, but requires a small amount of plumbing.

Mecca’s team is currently working on facility enclosures. In Ghana, an inexpensive simple frame with paneling is used to enclose the toilets. Other countries have a lot of recycled billboard material that can be used as walls.

Mecca had originally hoped to have 18 makers in Ghana by the end of the year. Now he expects to have 35 by the end of August.

“Ghana is going to be history,” he said. “In less than two years, 80 percent of the communities in Ghana are going to have access to our toilets at a reasonable price. We’re way ahead of where we expected to be.”

The recycled billboard fabric, along with PVC piping, is used to enclose the toilet that Mecca recently built at the Jamestown Community Farm. Mecca spoke to farm manager Bob Sutton earlier this year about testing his facility enclosures at the farm. Sutton asked why not go ahead and construct a working toilet on the site.

In the past, Mecca has said the toilet can only be effective in tropical climates because the macroorganisms that digest the waste and turn it into compost cannot withstand the colder weather. That means the local unit would have to be restarted with new macroorganisms every year.

Sutton came up with the idea of putting vegetable compost around the structure in hopes of keeping the macroorganisms (red wiggler worms in this case) warm.

“The farm does such a great job,” Mecca said. “It’s more than just a farm, it’s becoming a little bit of an educational destination.”

The toilet in Jamestown is identical to the African models.

Sutton said visitors and workers have shown interest in the toilet. He said it won’t be used in the winter, but he hopes the heat from the vegetable compost will keep the worms warm enough to survive the season.

“I think the concept is interesting where everything is composted,” Sutton said. “I think it’s important to note that it’s completely self-contained. No waste can escape from it. It’s a concrete cistern that is enclosed. Nothing goes into the ground.”

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