Building a circular sanitation economy

In an era of water scarcity and drought, and in a world where billions of people don’t have access to toilets and sewage systems, people are rethinking human sanitation from a number of angles – from toilets that don’t require a sewer connection or water, to systems that clean and recycle the water that we use to flush toilets, run dishwashers, and may even drink.

Finding practical, workable solutions involves changing how we think and talk about this often uncomfortable topic. We can talk about human waste, or we can – as the Toilet Board Coalition says – refer to ‘toilet resources’. Because if it’s waste, we discard it. If it’s a resource, we find a way to use it – and cities around the world have been doing this for a while. We are making progress, it seems.

I was reflecting on this dual approach to water and waste, inspired by a story in Reasons to be Cheerful, entitled Purified Wastewater Is the Drink of the Future. It starts out with a visit to a $70 million water reclamation facility called Pure Water Oceanside which is producing “the drink of the future – purified wastewater.” It takes water from dishwashers, showers and toilets and turns it into potable water, which is these days, more precious than ever – especially in drought-stricken areas. A quarter of the world’s people already live in water-stressed areas and UN Water thinks that could double by 2050. 

San DIego County Water Authority Oct. 3, 2017

For example, in Oceanside, California, much of the water residents use is imported and comes from hundreds of miles away. Only a small part of the city’s water supply is local, coming from a natural underground aquifer called the Mission Basin, which has declined over years of use. The imported water is expensive and getting more so, needs lots of energy to transport, and is vulnerable to natural disasters. That leaves the city vulnerable to climate change and drought, and diverting water from the Colorado River and Bay Delta affects ecosystems on which fish and wildlife depend.

Local programs like Pure Water Oceanside create a local and sustainable water source for the city’s residents, using state-of-the-art water purification steps that replicate and accelerate nature’s natural recycling process and creating between 3 and 5 million gallons per day of local, high quality drinking water, it says.

Advanced water purification technology isn’t new, and it is much cheaper than desalination, Pure Water Oceanside explains. “Orange County Water District operates the world’s largest advanced water purification system, serving nearly 850,000 people each day. In fact, Disneyland receives purified water from this project.”

Technology has really accelerated since recycled water first appeared in Southern California in the 1960’s when Irvine Ranch Water District began providing its water consumers with 2 million gallons a day (mgd) of tertiary treated water for agricultural uses. Water reclamation facilities gradually began to appear more and more throughout Southern California and communities began to see recycled water as an economically feasible way to supplement local water supplies while treating sewage at the same time.

But not everyone in the world has access to water and sewage treatment. In fact, 2.3 billion people today do not have access to a safe and hygienic toilet.

When it was formed in 2015, the motivation for the Toilet Board Coalition was “the belief that the fastest way to solve this humanitarian crisis is to turn it into an economic opportunity.” So they created “a unique business-led coalition with a single purpose: to accelerate business solutions to the sanitation crisis.” 

To achieve safely-managed sanitation for all by 2030, we need to accelerate our rate of progress by 5 times, the Coalition says. It’s a crisis, but a “crisis with a solution…many solutions that emerge when entrepreneurial energy collides with multinational corporate expertise.” That is why it adopted its Accelerator program to scale sanitation SMEs via business model design, corporate mentorship and access to investment.

“By 2030, the Sanitation Economy will be thriving, circular and smart, inspiring the brightest entrepreneurs, supporting livelihoods and bringing dignity to life,”  it says.

In 2016, India launched the rural component of its Clean India Mission (Swachh Bharat Mission). It was the country’s largest-ever drive to improve sanitation, launched in 2014 with the goal of ending open defecation by Oct. 2, 2019, the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth.

Loowatt Toilets with Purpose Nov. 19, 2020

A number of toilet innovations do not require water, or a sewer connection, as noted in a paper on the needs of women and girls in the water and sanitation sector.

  • Loowatt, in England, has designed an innovative toilet that locks in odour without water or chemicals. Its waterless toilets and closed loop sanitation system allow people around the world to access safe and sustainable toilets within their homes and communities.
  • SOIL, in Haiti, transforms human waste into organic fertilizer via ecological container-based sanitation.
  • XRunner, in Peru, provides hygienic in-home sanitation by combining a portable dry toilet, a weekly pick-up system and high-quality customer care.
  • Toilet Integration, in India, modifies old municipal buses into mobile public toilet facilities for women.
  • Sanergy, in Kenya, installs and services a network of cartridge-based sanitation units called Fresh Life Toilets, safely collects the waste from the toilets within the communities and converts it into useful end-products for use as organic fertilizer.
  • Sanivation, in Kenya, operates as a household toilet and waste-to-energy biofuel business to provide high-quality fuel sources commercially.
  • Mosan, in Guatemala, provides a transportable dry toilet and ecological sanitation service to densely populated settlements

And this is not just a cost, the Coalition emphasizes – it is an opportunity for growth. Capturing, treating and productively using the trillions of liters of “toilet resources” could create a transformative sanitation economy estimated to be worth US$62 billion a year in India alone by 2021, said a 2020 study which highlighted how better answers to the global sanitation crisis already exist and illustrated eight practical steps that can be taken to help these businesses scale more rapidly and sustainably.


Purified Wastewater Is the Drink of the Future. Reasons to be Cheerful, Jul. 25, 2023

Achieving a Clean and Healthy Rural India. World Bank, Dec. 15, 2015

How the sanitation sector can clean up gender inequality. Toilet Board Coalition, Sep. 2018

Eight ways impact enterprises can transform the sanitation economy. EY, Mar. 20, 2020

Cover image: Tgormanbrown, Wikimedia