Thursday, December 3, 2015

Are we wasting our waste?

Here it is December already and the world seems to be spinning at a rapid pace, as per usual......

Most of us are preparing for the end of the year in some way, reflecting back, looking forward, preparing for the holidays, watching our pocket books, putting on sweaters, roasting vegetables, and generally carrying on as if things are going to stay the same forever!

But most people can see that there are too many unprecedented unnatural disasters happening in different parts of the world in pretty much every season of every year for the past too many years to really ignore the changes happening on Planet Earth.

The Paris Climate summit currently happening is just the tip of the melting ice-burg, and many people are feeling complete overwhelm and exhaustion, topped off with a heavy dose of powerlessness, when it comes to saving our earth from the brink of disaster.

None of us really knows what to expect here.

But we do know that more and more and bigger and bigger natural disasters are happening, and with that means wide-scale disaster relief.

I recently had the distinct honor of interviewing one of the world's pioneers when it comes to rapid response disaster relief.  Stanford Ecologist Sasha Kramer was working in northern Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake in Port au Prince.

At that time, the organization she co-founded to install and manage composting toilets in urban and rural Haiti was 6 years in, she spoke fluent Haitian Kreyol, and was very well known and well-loved throughout Cap Haitien (the second largest city in Haiti).  She was working with a small team in Cap Haitien and in the surrounding towns with her organization SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livlihoods) and its partner Haitian-led organization, SOL (Sosyete Organize pou Lanati), when the earthquake struck.

What ensued after soon became international news, as relief organizations poured in to respond to the wide-scale loss.   Sasha and her team responded by jumping in a truck and driving straight to Port au Prince the following day, to be of service and to assess the needs, as well as to find friends who hopefully had survived the quake itself.

Very soon thereafter SOIL was granted an opportunity to install composting toilets at several IDP (Internally Displaced Peoples) camps.   As far as anyone knew at the time, this type of sanitation had never been done in an emergency response environment, but SOIL and SOL took a chance, scaled up their organizations, and went into over-drive training, building, hiring, installing, managing, hauling, storing, and transforming literally tons of safe, organic fertilizer on a weekly basis all throughout the city, while simultaneously rendering powerless one of the world's most ruthless killers:  water-borne disease.  (Can you say, "cholera"?  Since the earthquake of 2010 nearly 9,000 number of people have died from this disease in Haiti.....)

Sanitation is not something most people want to talk about on a regular basis.

But the moment a natural disaster takes away one's ability to defecate in a safe, dignified manner, all of that changes.  What would happen to MY ability to "go to the bathroom" if suddenly there was no water flowing to my house?

It's all well and good for Sasha and her organization to be setting up these systems "over there in Haiti".  But I live in the Bay Area.  I don't want to have to think about where I'm going to go to the bathroom!

We are constantly being told to "look out for the big one", "it's not a matter of if, but when", and "the plates are moving", etc.

I interviewed Sasha as the first of several interviews my team and I are conducting for our next project, a web series called "Waste(d)", which is exploring the possibilities of navigating away from flush toilets in the Industrialized nations, in favor of more sustainable practices such as, you guessed it, composting toilets.

In our interview Dr. Kramer suggested that, with all the infrastructure already in place for flushing toilets throughout residential and commercial buildings here in the "first world", it does not make any sense, and would be far too expensive to modify sanitation systems under normal circumstances.

However, as a contingency plan in the event of natural disaster, it makes a whole lot of sense to have a Plan B system in place for when and if our homes are suddenly without the capacity to flush our toilets.

There are many different ways to process and transform human waste, but the reality is, it actually holds nutrients and minerals which, when processed correctly, can be re-infused into our soils and gardens to energize agriculture.

When the big one comes, wouldn't it be nice to know there was a safe place to "go" which would not cause any further health hazards and could actually provide our gardens with healthy organic fertilizer?

Stay tuned.....

Saturday, September 5, 2015

California Water Policy Challenge

It is a crystal clear morning here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the air is cool.  I can see San Francisco lit up by morning sun from my porch in Richmond, an outer suburb about 15 miles from downtown SF.

But for a brief moment in time before getting out of bed, around 6:45am, with my curtains closed and the air cool, I thought I might have heard some sprinkles outside.

Me and my cat both looked up at the same time with an inquisitive expression -- why, that is a sound we haven't heard for some time!

But alas, it was only the sound of birds crunching across dried leaves.......

I have noticed that there are fewer birds in my yard than this time last year.  Then they were busy, fluttering about and hustling for the winter.  Now......I barely see or hear them.

The drought is in full swing here in California, the trees digging deep, deep underground to find any remaining moisture.  The mid-range critters such as raccoons, opossums, coyotes -- where are they getting their water?  

I have been leaving bowls of it in my yard for the raccoons and opossum that come around.  I have seen them lapping it up...

The state is also going to great lengths, digging deep, trying to respond to immediate areas of crisis:  there are many towns in the central valley who literally have no water coming out of their faucets.

Just think about that for one second: there is no water coming out of your faucet.

This is the reality for many people, right now, living here in California.

That's why my team and I are submitting an application to the California Water Policy Challenge.

We think the state would do well to reconsider its use of flush toilets, and implement a wide-spread change in policy around sanitation.

We recognize that in order to do this, it will require a paradigm shift about what waste is, and how to manage it.  We realize folks think of dry, composting toilets as a great idea for those "poor people in the developing world", and not something "we do here in the civilized world".

But we are interested in changing that thinking by creating interest in and strategies for alternative ways to dispose of and manage our waste.

In Bristol, England they are transforming it into methane gas and fueling public transportation with it. In Port au Prince and throughout Haiti they are transforming their waste into rich, organic fertilizer (hello

We are excited to be a part of creating a * global movement * to eliminate the need to waste our precious water for flushing down our waste.

Do you think the California Water Policy Challenge will go for it?

Stay tuned....