The Urine Economy: The Future Smart City?
Can you imagine a future New York in which urine is widely and maybe even exclusively used as a source of electrical power and agricultural fertilizer? Maybe not. We have flush toilets and sewage treatment plants for that, don’t we? Yet, in places like Uganda and Madagascar, where the sanitation infrastructure that New York enjoys will likely never be fully deployed, experiments on how to recycle human waste in a decentralized manner are slowly taking shape through projects called Urine-tricity and the Loowatt, respectively. On a morning Skype call from London in February 2018, Fernanda Costa, the lead designer at Loowatt, explained the inner workings of this new toilet design and why it’s sorely needed. In rapid-fire speech, she said, “The flush toilet is not an option for 2.6 billion people. We are looking at creative ways to approach sanitation and produce value out of waste through the patented biofilm and exploiting anaerobic digestion.”
These new designs are showing a proof of concept that there is more than one way to think about urban sanitation. This experimentation is also beginning to disrupt the global primacy of the wet toilet and all its associated infrastructure. It is providing a wormhole that can allow developing cities, like Kampala, to leapfrog over existing means and methods of approaching urban hygiene, and to capitalize on new technologies that can allow the recycling of urine (and feces) into productive inputs. And all this is without the aid of a complex centralized sanitation system. While there may not seem to be an urgent need to recycle feces and urine in a city like New York, these examples can be useful to create a blueprint for the “smart” city of the future.
In an anonymous office building in midtown Manhattan, Nancy Anderson, previously an environmental consultant with the Department of Environmental Protection, the governing body that oversees sanitation, recounts the history of New York’s sanitation infrastructure. It is easily forgotten that it was only in 1842 that New York City began to bring clean water into the city and pipe all of the human waste out from each building. The catalyst for this huge investment was born from the epidemics of typhoid and cholera. Human excrement was contaminating drinking water and causing unprecedented levels of illness among the working population.
New York began to remove waste from all buildings and pipe it out to the Hudson River or the New York Harbor. Anderson emphasizes that “through dumping waste into moving water that the problem would just be diluted, literally and figuratively, and go away.” Therefore, it is through the act of design that excreta is flushed out of sight and mind and also, more significantly, out of cultural production. For urine to come out of obscurity, not only does the language around bodily waste needs to be addressed first as it is laden with a thick layer of ignominy but a future “smart” city—as in truly intelligent—could redefine the beliefs of what is considered dirty and what it means to be clean.
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