Necessity is the Mother of Scientific Inventions

Catherine Coleman Flowers a MacArthur Foundation “genius”, is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on the design of a toilet that will turn solid waste into fertilizer and liquid waste into water clean enough for washing clothes. This sounds amazing for a future with more people on the planet requiring more fresh water from a diminishing supply, along with more food and energy.

However, her inspiration was not futuristic, but based on what is happening in the county of Lowndes in Alabama where she grew up. Low income families with no public sewer available relied on a septic system, but due to climate change—not necessarily due to carbon dioxide—the average yearly rainfall has increased over time, resulting in the water table level rising. A septic system not only requires a tank, but a drain or leach field. The sludge remains in the tank, which has to be pumped out periodically. The effluent flows into the drain field. With the high water table, the effluent didn’t sink into the soil but bubbled up onto people’s properties, providing an environment for hookworms and other nasty small critters harmful to human health, something rarely seen in developed countries. The cost of specially engineered septic systems is out of reach for the ordinary resident, but the $500 cost of more frequent removal of the sludge is a Catch 22. On top of this, people were once fined for lack of maintenance.

As I thought about the problem, I found myself angry that people had to live this way, but in my research was heartened to learn that the problem had reached the attention of the federal government, partly because the county was the hardest hit by Covid-19. One of the residents testified before Congress. Bernie Sanders and Jane Fonda visited the area. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working on the issue of turning sewage into drinking water worldwide. Some funds have been provided to finance the special septic systems In Lowndes Coutny. At least ten have been installed.

However, according to Flowers, not only this Alabama county but also the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns contain an estimated half-million U.S. households that lack adequate sanitation. According to the CDC more than 35% of the world population is in the same situation. This larger need has inspired her to design a better septic system, one that is inexpensive and easy to run and maintain. It will separate waste into various recyclable elements. She also plans sensors that can monitor for signs of pathogens, including the coronavirus. Her article doesn’t explain how it will work nor how it can be done cheaply, but I salute her.