There are a lot of things to detest about poop. It's poop, for one. It smells. It carries disease. It never stops being produced. But that aside, there's a lot to like about poop.
It's one of the the world's most plentiful sources of nutrients for fertilizers. Processed properly, poop can also be converted into electricity. It even be used as new artistic medium, though somebody's already scooped up the prize for poop painting. As the world's population grows, both the positive and the negative effects of poop on public health and the environment will only grow, so a burgeoning group of brave scientists are trying to figure out how to make the best of a crappy situation.
Let's talk about human poop. The future of human poop is a particularly unique challenge, because, well, we have a conflicted relationship with it. For whatever reason, people simply seem to think that human poop is the grossest poop, a stigma that's long prevented it from being put to good use.
Nobody bats an eyelash at the thought of slinging bags full of cow manure in their garden to help her tulips grow, but can you imagine dipping your hand into the toilet and pulling out fistfuls of feces throw on your lawn? Or, more realistically, can you foresee a future where you go to Home Depot and pick up a bag of fertilizer with the warning label "Contains Human Shit?"
But such a future should exist, say some experts. (Note: Becoming an excrement expert is a potentially lucrative career, but also the world's worst way to find a date.) For now, it's largely a squandered resource. You yourself produce about 120 pounds of poop every year, the majority of which gets flushed down the toilet and sent off to a waste management plant, never to be seen or smelled again. That is, if you live in a first world country, it does. About 60 percent of the world's population does not have access to proper sanitation infrastructure, so their human waste often just ends up in streams and rivers or in a hole in the ground, where it likely eventually makes its way to streams and rivers.
The world's sanitation shortage is deadly. An estimated 2 millions deaths are caused each year by human excrement-related diseases. Urine isn't the problem either — it's actually quite a clean substance. But feces contain everything from flesh-eating bacteria to wormy parasites, and it doesn't take much to give someone deadly diarrhea in the third world. As this public health problem continues to grow with the global population, there is another understandable but ironic problem that threatens even more lives: a food shortage that is directly correlated with a fertilizer shortage.
"Like fossil fuels, you don’t have unlimited supplies," Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization told Motherboard's Derek Mead last year. "What happens if we don’t have fertilizer? The food prices will shoot up. It’s already happened, and phosphorus prices have already shot up — [there’s been a] 300% increase in prices, eventually you can’t even find [fertilizers]."
The obvious solution, of course, is to take all that poop that's making people sick and use it to grow food so that people don't go hungry. Worldwide, human waste produces 70 million tons of nutrients that could account for about 40 percent of the 176 million tons of nutrients needed to produce chemical fertilizer. The value of these nutrients is not lost on the farmers of the world, and in fact, human feces have long been a semi-secret source of fertilizer for centuries.
While culturally acceptable in some parts of the world, it was long frowned upon and even outlawed elsewhere, leading to a cottage industry in selling so-called "night soil." This richly fertile soil was produced by skimming human waste off of cesspools and spreading it onto fields under the cover of darkness, hence the name. The practice became less popular with the advent of chemical fertilizer in the 20th century, but as those resources dwindle, the old poop fields are starting to look pretty appealing once again.
Indeed, the use of human waste as fertilizer is on the rise. As recently as 2008, nearly 200 million farmers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America depended on feces for fertilizing fields where they grew vegetables and grains. This food, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated, fed as much as ten percent of the world's population. Yet people are still going hungry, and fertilizer remains a tremendous expense for farmers.
The future, New Scientist suggests, lies in a new sort of sanitation sector, one that focuses on collecting human waste and processing it specifically for use as fertilizer. This already exists in parts of India in the form of trucks known as "honey-suckers" that drive around collecting sewage from septic tanks and cesspools — not unlike the age-old night soil makers — and sell it to farmers.
"Sometimes the drivers charge the farmers, and sometimes they pay them. It depends on the season and the market," Vishwanath Srikantaiah of Biome Systems told the magazine. It remains a challenge to train farmers how to safely process the waste, however.
This is only one idea for improving the future of poop and, in turn, the future of humanity. Indeed, it only gets more exciting from here with a growing number of ways to convert feces into electricity with simple chemistry. And don't even get me started on all the amazing things we could do with pee. This is all assuming we can get past the ick factor which, understandably, is large.