Waste conversion benefits Bolinas and Haiti

David Briggs
John Hulls, a Point Reyes Station resident and project director for the Carbon Cycle Institute, reaches into a compost pile devoid of harmful gut bacteria at a test site on a Nicasio ranch on Wednesday. The institute is piloting revolutionary sanitation systems in Bolinas and Haiti that convert human waste into beneficial fertilizer using a fraction of the water compared to conventional wastewater systems.

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and for Mr. Hulls, a Point Reyes Station resident and project director with the Carbon Cycle Institute, the aphorism could not hold more true. For the last several years, he has been developing procedures and protocols to safely convert human excrement into a nutrient-rich fertilizer. He hopes to revolutionize sanitation systems across the world—from Bolinas to Haiti—by making our waste not so wasteful.

“No one is doing this at any significant scale in the United States,” said Gary Anderson, an ecologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a partner on Mr. Hull’s projects. “At some point in the future, we’ll look back and say we can’t believe we flushed all those good nutrients and all that valuable water down the drain.”

The team is using one of Mr. Anderson’s inventions, called the PhyloChip, to identify any pathogens in the compost. The tiny device, which fits into the palm of one’s hand, has over 1.1 million probes that can detect 60,000 individual types of bacteria by extracting and analyzing segments of D.N.A. It’s been used to identify oil-digesting bacteria in the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, catalog microbes in diseased coral beds in Puerto Rico and test for bacteria on outbound spaceships for NASA.

Current uses of the PhyloChip are taking place at John Wick’s ranch in Nicasio, where a few cubic yards of waste compost are surrounded by bales of hay. (The National Park Service provided the excrement, Mr. Hulls said.) A solar-powered fan aerates the compost pile, a special fabric keeps out frostand rain and thermal probes constantly measure fluctuations in temperature. When done correctly, the breakdown of organic materials in the compost pile will generate heat, enough to kill dangerous bacteria from the human gut.

The team says the most important implications of their project will be realized in impoverished countries without adequate sanitation systems. Roughly 2.5 billion people lack access to toilets globally, resulting in hundreds of thousands of illnesses each year and making diarrhea the leading cause of death.

In Haiti, for example, since the devastating 2010 earthquake, most of the human waste has been dumped untreated into the ocean or in rural areas. The nonprofit SOIL, which stands for Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods and is headquartered in Oakland, has become the country’s largest treatment operation. Yet the group’s leadership wanted better safeguards against bacteria.

Sasha Kramer, SOIL’s director, contacted Mr. Anderson about analyzing their samples, but he doubted that the United States Customs agents would allow human waste to be shipped to the laboratory in Berkeley. But instead of bringing the samples to the lab, the lab went to samples: Mr. Anderson’s small and portable tool seemed perfect for the situation.

Gabby Pecora, a Berkeley Lab affiliate and team member at the Carbon Cycle Institute, traveled to Haiti for two weeks in October to train locals on using D.N.A. extraction with PhyloChip. A small group of SOIL’s employees, some with only a high school education, quickly learned how to use the device, she said, even through a language barrier. The data collected will also be sent back to the lab in Berkeley to aid further research about microbial populations.

A more advanced pilot project is being developed for Bolinas to convert the septic systems in 20 homes to compost their waste. The beach town has had periods of mandatory water rationing over the last four decades, a state of perpetual emergency the project aims to mitigate. The homes will get high-tech toilets that use 6 ounces of water per flush and operate like a vacuum to send waste to an outdoor vault. 

Homes with older toilets may use up to seven gallons per flush, and even the most efficient new pots use 1.5 gallons. The model will be cheaper than a new septic system and use minimal amounts of water. 

Additionally, “greywater,” or wastewater from showers, sinks and baths, will be separated from sewage and can be reused elsewhere on the property for non-consumption like watering plants. For the first time in decades, Bolinas residents might catch a glimpse of someone washing their car.