Worms are the great metabolizers of nature, turning animal and plant waste into soil nutrients.
Now, a company called Bear Valley Ventures is trying to leverage this ability to solve the global sanitation crisis through something called the Tiger Toilet, according to Business Insider.
Tiger Toilets look like common latrines, except they feature containers filled with tiger worms at the bottom. When people defecate in the latrine, the worms process the waste by turning it into water, carbon dioxide, and compost. In the process, 99% of pathogens are stripped out and the amount of solid material in the latrine declines by 85%.
Because the worms are directly metabolizing the waste, the latrines don’t stink like regular latrines do as they bake in the sun, nor do they attract flies. By turning the waste into compost and water, people managing the latrines also don’t have to continually dispose of the feces, and they can even use the compost for fertilizer. Plus, people using the latrines don’t have to worry about the worms crawling out of their container because they need to be enmeshed in waste to survive.
Further, the worms eliminate the need for waste treatment plants, which are costly systems that require networks of infrastructure.
The Tiger Toilets have been introduced in India, Burma, and Uganda, in rural and semi-urban environments, and displaced persons camps, according to USAID, the US foreign aid agency.
“I visited a village in India a couple months ago and spoke to villagers who use the toilets,” Walter Gibson, CEO of Tiger Toilet developer Bear Valley Ventures, told USAID. “The first thing they talked about was the smell and the flies. They said they feel safer going to the toilet now.”
Globally, more than 4.5 billion people lack access to quality sanitation options, according to the World Health Organization. Many of these people practice open defecation, which can contaminate drinking water supplies and crops, and cause people to contract infectious diseases as they crouch. More than 525,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from diarrhea, which is largely contracted through contaminated water.
A step up from open defecation is a basic latrine. Oftentimes, these latrines are poorly insulated and end up leaching contaminants into water and soil. Using a latrine is also usually an unpleasant experience, according to surveys conducted by the US National Library of Medicine, and they require continual upkeep, with waste being transferred to processing centers.
In India, the government has been working toward universal sanitation through a campaign called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, but thousands of the latrines that have been built since 2014 have fallen into serious disrepair, and there’s widespread aversion to using latrines in the first place.
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Women and girls, in particular, avoid public latrines because of the possibility of sexual assault and harassment.
Refugee and displaced persons camps are also places in urgent need of quality sanitation. Because of their hastily constructed nature, these camps often become hotbeds of water-borne diseases.
While Tiger Toilets won’t automatically solve the global sanitation crisis, they can help governments and aid groups alike move beyond many of the problems of open defecation and basic latrines.
Worms decomposing waste will also probably be an easy sell, once people realize that Tiger Toilets don’t smell that bad.