You might call it a throne, but it turns out your toilet could be a figurative gold mine. Thanks to poop.
We're all full of it (some more than others), flush it down the toilet every day (hopefully), and promptly forget about it (also, hopefully). But apparently, the world's bowel movements could be a vast, and dare we say renewable, source of energy worth up to $9.5 billion in natural gas equivalent every year, according to a new report from the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health. Well, holy crap.
“We recycle the nutrients in human waste effectively via agriculture in many places, yet the potential energy value of human waste has been given much less attention to date,” said Dr. Chris Metcalfe, a co-author of the report. “Challenges are many but clearly there is a compelling, multi-dimensional financial case to be made for deriving energy from waste.”
Wait, what? Well, it turns out that biogas can be extracted from your poop and used as energy. Specifically, the methane-rich biogas can be generated when bacteria breaks down fecal matter in an oxygen-free system. Oh, and all the leftover and dried out poop "sludge" (their word, not ours) can be used as an energy source similar to coal and charcoal, according to the report.
Not everyone in the world, especially the developing world, is fortunate enough to have access to toilets and modern sanitation. In fact, nearly a billion people just defecate out in the open, so using all of the human waste for energy could also help solve the serious problem of where it's all ending up. If you take just the nuggets that people are dropping in the open, it would result in as much as $376 million worth of gas energy and as many as 8.5 million tons of poop-based charcoal that could be used for industrial purposes, according to the report. This is clearly some serious shit.
"When it comes to creating misery and poverty, human waste mismanagement has few rivals," said UNU-INWEH Director Zafar Adeel in a statement. "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.”
As you can imagine, implementing such a system would be costly and, well, messy; however, the report points to pilot programs launched in Africa as a place to start. Whether or not we'll ever see a global shit recycling system remains to be seen. Or is it smelled? Let's just hope they don't do this next to wind turbines.
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Tony Merevick is Cities News Editor at Thrillist and can't help but think of that scene from the movie Billy Madison, when the old man stomps on a burning bag of "poop." Send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @tonymerevick.