Science, Tech & Environment

China's failed experiment with dry toilets

With its flashy lights and fast construction, Ordos is a city on the make – a coal boomtown that boasts it’s now got the highest income per capita of any urban area in China – much of it, concentrated in the hands of a few coal, oil and natural gas tycoons. But less than a decade ago, Ordos was dingy, dusty and poor, with frequent cuts of water supply. That’s why it caught the eye of the Stockholm Environment Institute, which had successfully promoted the use of dry toilets in rural areas in developing countries, but wanted to see how they’d work in a city.

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Credit: Flickr photo: sustainable sanitation
Chinese toilet with external composting.
“When we got there in 2002, it was very much this dirty, dark, poor area,” says Arno Rosemarin, an SEI ecological sanitation specialist. “Coal was the mainstay, but no one was making much money off of it. Their priority was resilience in water security. There just wasn’t enough water…and I think most people thought their fate was going to be to adapt to extreme conditions.”

So the Ordos government was open to the idea of working with SEI to design and build an ecotown apartment complex – 14 buildings, 830 apartments, all with dry toilets connected to an on-site composting system – the first such project in China.

“The (Ordos) government invested in the green project, and organized a special team to manage it,” says Sun Yixia, the Ordos’ government’s point person on the project. “We also invested in the composting system, and in vehicles to load the urine and feces.”

In the beginning, she says, the local government thought all this was a good idea. The toilets saved water. The waste could be composted and turned into fertilizer. And Ordos’ image could benefit from cooperating a successful project with an international environmental group.

But then construction began, and the problems started. “You could say the project was sabotaged by a lack of inspection and the way the buildings were built,” Rosemarin laments. By “sabotage,” he doesn’t mean anything deliberate – just the usual cutting corners and pocketing the difference that happens in much of the Chinese construction industry. That, and the fact that inexperienced workers slapped their own solutions together, rather than following the blueprints.

“When we started taking walls apart, we found atrocious piping systems,” Rosemarin says. “There were cases where they were connecting urine pipes with ventilation pipes.” There was one obvious result. The toilets stank. “Sometimes, it stank so badly, it made me cry,” says Wang San, a retiree who shares his apartment with his wife.

The toilets would also break down — the mechanical parts that flipped and disposed of the waste would stop working, and it would take time to get new ones. And then, Rosemarin says, there was the fact that some residents – particularly during Inner Mongolia’s frigid winters – would use their toilets as all-purpose disposals. “We’d find garbage, clothing, diapers – all kinds of things,” Rosemarin said.

That did nothing to help the stench. For more than two years, the residents put up with it. Then they started to organize. They went to the Chinese media. They went to the local government. By then, the price of coal had shot up and made Ordos a boom-town. Residents’ expectations for better lives and material comfort rose, too. They expected better. They demanded it.

In the end, the government gave in. It pulled out almost all the dry toilets and the onsite system that delivered waste for composting. Just a small corner of the project was saved, when a Chinese businessman who’d heard of the project, Scott Chen, came to work with Rosemarin. Chen was selling a different model of a Swedish-designed dry toilet – one with its own self-contained ventilation system, and a flip commode that covers feces in sawdust and then dumps it into a pail inside the toilet. The resident would then have to carry the bucket down to the composting site.

Together, Chen and Rosemarin persuaded the Ordos government to let them keep trying the dry toilet experiment in one vertical column of four apartments, in one building. Resident Wei Dongyong has one of them. “It has advantages and disadvantages,” Wei says. “Of course, using a toilet with water is easiest. But the odor’s not so bad, and if the water gets cut, we can still use this toilet.”

But the water supply isn’t getting cut very much anymore. Ordos’ newfound coal wealth has bought the city the right to divert part of the Yellow River for its needs. Now, water here is heavily subsidized, and costs about 60 US cents a ton — that’s about 250 gallons. So there’s little financial bite for choosing to flush. Rosemarin says, it could have been different, if incentives were built in by pricing water in northern China as the scarce commodity it is.

“If people understood it more, if the price of water was really high, if people paid the real price for (sewage) treatment, this would have caught on,” he says. “Throughout the country, they’re only paying for water. They’re not really paying for treatment. In most of the country, treatment is kind of an afterthought.”

Ordos official Sun Yixia says she’s sorry the project failed, but she says it wasn’t the Ordos government’s fault. She says the original toilets broke down too much, and the new ones, that Scott Chen promotes, are too expensive. What’s more, she says, they’re ill-matched for the aspirations of urban middle class life.

“What’s unacceptable is you have to carry a bucket of your own feces down for composting,” she says, and gives me a level look. “Could you imagine doing that? For farmers, these toilets could really be a good thing. But for cities? They’re just not appropriate. Anyway, we have more water now, so we don’t need these like we once did.”

Wang San, the resident who said the original dry toilet used to stink so much it made him cry, says he would take one of the new models. With his new flush toilet, he’s using twice as much water as he used to, and he’d rather not. The problem is, once the government decided to change the toilets, specific apartments couldn’t opt for the new, improved dry toilets unless everyone above and below them in the building, who shared the same plumbing, agreed.

So now, what was meant to be an ecotown is just another Ordos apartment compound where – as in most of urban China — almost half of household water goes into flushing the toilet – this, in a growing city, on a parched plain with a plunging water table – a problem many cities in northern China share.

The ecotown complex still has a few signs of its experiment with dry toilets. A forlorn porcelain heap of them is piled near the composting shed, just next to the garden where Rosemarin experimented with growing vegetables. Chen wades in to the garden to show the size and quality of the produce.

Credit: Mary Kay Magistad
Businessman Scott Chen
“You see these beans? Two meters (six feet) high!,” he says. “That’s five to seven times better than usual. And these eggplant – very thick, very big.”

The produce — and the compost – have made money for the apartment complex. Organic farmers have flocked to get it, and say it’s the best fertilizer they’ve ever used. But now, only a few bags are left on the concrete floor of the composting shed, and while Scott Chen comes regularly to empty the four remaining toilets, and compost their waste, the scale isn’t what it was.

Still, Chen knows that northern China has a serious water problem – one that has driven farmers and growing cities alike to drill hundreds of yards down into non-replenishable aquifers. Chen sees a big future for dry toilets in China, and he says his work with Arno Rosemarin has inspired him to carry on the work. He’s sold a number of waterless toilets to schools in the dry western province of Gansu, where water is much more expensive – not heavily subsidized, as in Ordos. Chen thinks it’s just a matter of time before China’s chronic water shortage, and the growing urban demand for water, transform dry toilets from a novelty to an environment-saving necessity.

“I have a dream,” he says with a grin. “One family, one waterless toilet. All families, in rural areas and in urban, using these toilets to protect our water supply, to improve our soil quality, to guarantee our food security. That’s my dream. I will use the rest of my life to do this job.”

He just hopes it won’t take quite that long.

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