China's big stinky problem

February 03, 2015 11:40
China has made great strides in the area of sanitation, but there's still much that needs to be done. Photo: internet

China has an enormous feces problem, and it stinks.

I'm not talking about mainland toddlers defecating at the Apple store in Beijing, in the bowels of the Shanghai Metro or anywhere they want to in Hong Kong.

What I'm talking about is what to do with the 222 billion pounds of human waste that the people of China produce every year. (You may visualize the immensity of that load on your own, but I will tell you how that number was derived later.)

How to collect it, treat it and dispose of it are challenges that don’t get all the headlines that China’s water shortage get—even though 460 million Chinese don't have access to "improved" sanitation where human excreta is hygienically separated from human contact, according to the World Health Organization.

Which means a lot of crap laden with as many as 234 pathogens is being dumped into rivers or buried in shallow ditches.

Globally, more than 200 million tons of human waste—enough to fill 400 oil tankers—go untreated every year, according to information compiled by Online Nursing Programs.

The results are deadly, with 1.4 million children killed each year from direct contact. That’s about one child every 20 seconds—more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

Fortunately, a growing portion of China's toilet waste is converted into fertilizer and biogas, according to a Bloomberg report. In Beijing alone, 6,800 tons of human excrement is treated each day by some estimates: enough to fill almost three Olympic-size swimming pools.

But while the push to re-purpose feces into energy resources or fertilizer is expanding across China, there's still much to be done.

Heinz-Peter Mang, for one, is obsessed with turning human waste into gold. As millions of Chinese move to cities, the German engineer is convinced the country is on the way to hitting the jackpot, Bloomberg noted.

"The world has much to learn from China in the way it's harnessed waste for energy," said Mang, 57, who works with graduate students on ecological sanitation projects at the University of Science and Technology Beijing.

"With the lack of taboo around reusing fecal matter, it's all about the science for safe reuse, and with more and more people moving into cities there's an unprecedented opportunity," Mang told Bloomberg.

On a related front, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested US$5 million in 2013 to support Chinese research and development of a "next generation toilet"—one which captures, processes and transforms human waste into useful resources, such as energy and water.

Thirty percent of rural Chinese do not have access to hygienic toilets, said Zhang Yong, a senior official with the Disease Control and Prevention department of China's National Health and Family Planning Commission, according to Xinhua.

"China aims to raise the percentage of rural residents using hygienic toilets to 85 percent by 2020," Zhang said, adding that his government body was interested in seeing the new designs that come from the Gates Foundation campaign.

To be sure, China has already made great strides in the area of sanitation.

According to most recent information, in 2006 there was sufficient capacity to treat 52 percent of municipal residential wastewater. By 2010, there were 1,519 municipal wastewater treatment plants in China and 18 plants were added each week.

As a side note, in case you're wondering how China's population can possibly unload 222 billion pounds of human waste every year, that's 1.39 billion people times 160 pounds, the average amount a person produces annually. Whoa!

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business