How many of us have our best ideas on the toilet?
No really, it can happen. Take Zuraina Zaharin from Malaysia. She’s built a business off the back of a loo break. Not just any loo break, of course. This one was near Everest in the early 2000s when she was climbing in the region – and it was pretty bleak.
“I was facing this problem: the toilet,” she explains. “It’s easy for men to do their business; they can just do it anywhere. But not for the ladies. We have to wait until we find some nice spot. Even then, I can’t do it. I just have to find the toilet.”
Things didn’t improve upon discovering the facilities, however. “The last toilet at Everest base camp is a pit latrine,” Zaharin continues. “The smell, God knows… it’s so stinky.”
Zaharin had traveled to the Himalayas, only to encounter “a mountain of poop.”
The problem hasn’t exactly gone away. In 2018, 28,000 pounds of human waste was hauled from Everest base camp during the climbing season, according to a local NGO tasked with cleaning up Everest, and dumped in open pits where it risks entering the water supply system.
It was an extreme example of unsafely managed sanitation – something 4.5 billion people have to live with, according to the World Health Organization. Even flush toilets can bring their own problems, according to the UN, potentially “increasing water stresses” in countries with an inadequate water supply.
Zaharin, an entrepreneur, adventurer and environmentalist, did not forget her Everest experience. When she attended a business forum in 2012 and listened to a man looking for investment in a sustainable toilet, ideal for locations with poor sanitation or little water, the stars aligned.
Imad Agi from Sweden conceived a waterless toilet system that turns human waste into fertilizer without the harmful germs that can cause sickness if used in agriculture – ideal for organic farming.
Agi and Zaharin went into business together as co-founders of EcoLoo, refining the toilet and taking it to market.
The toilet works by adding a microbe solution to the waste chamber. The microbes break down human solids – normally in three to four days – leaving behind “ashes,” while liquid waste is turned into liquid fertilizer, which can be extracted via an outlet, Zaharin explains. EcoLoo recommends the microbe solution is topped up once a month and costs $60 for a year’s supply.
EcoLoo claims it’s less energy-intensive than a regular toilet because there’s no waste water to separate and process. And before you ask, no, it doesn’t smell, says Zaharin – the bacterial process prevents bad odors from building in the tank.
The toilet range, priced between $800-$2,500, has gone on to win a clutch of awards and sell over 2,000 units in 21 countries. Notable examples include units installed at Petra, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jordan.
Zaharin says the EcoLoo could potentially play a role in disaster relief efforts when sanitation issues, often related to contaminated water supplies, cause diseases to spread rapidly.
Of course, it’s not the only waterless toilet on the block. Models have been around for decades in the developed world in one shape or form, incinerating, freezing or composting waste. But EcoLoo believes its low-energy product could have wide appeal.
We’re using 141 billion liters of fresh water globally every day to flush toilets – six times the daily water consumption of the population of Africa – per one recent study. Meanwhile, “water stress is the biggest crisis no on is talking about,” Andrew Steer, the head of the World Resources Institute, said earlier this year. Diarrhea linked to inadequate sanitation causes an estimated 432,000 deaths every year, says the UN. The current climate seems ripe for less resource and energy-intensive toilets to become mainstream.
Zaharin says her company has long since grown beyond its original purpose to serve rural communities. Luxury models and smaller units designed for transport and island holiday resorts are also on the market, she says.
The EcoLoo co-founder still has one mountain to conquer: getting her toilet installed at Everest base camp. A plan to have one fitted was scuppered by the 2015 Nepal earthquake. But the dream lives on. “Being an adventurer, I would never give up,” she says.