Understanding the problem
Let’s start with the fact that we don’t even have a good name for our crap. Shit is considered vulgar, no one except medical professionals utilize the word feces, doo-doo, poo, poop and No.2 were created to cute-ify the experience, excrement feels slightly awkward when used in every day conversation, manure is reserved for animal waste, and human waste implies that there is nothing good about the excess matter that we excrete on a daily basis.
This is a problem. But, that’s not the only problem that we have when it comes to this powerful and valuable matter. In fact, we have so many problems when it comes to poop that it’s more of a crisis! And it’s a crisis that affects all of us. Yes - all 7.125 billion people that are currently breathing, eating and pooping.
The first step to solving any crisis is to increase awareness and start a conversation, so what are the facts?
Fact #1: All animals poop (this includes all human beings).
While the magnificent experience of defecating is not reserved specifically for human kind, the average human being excretes about 1 ounce per 12 pounds of weight at least once a day (depending on your metabolism, it can range from once every three days to three times a day).
Even though this is a daily, natural and essential part of what it means to be alive – as a society, we really don’t like talking about it. It’s actually mostly looked down upon – unless, of course, you are at the doctor or talking about your baby’s or puppy’s poop around other parents or puppy owners.
Fact #2: Poop is rich! (and a great source of information and energy).
Human waste is made up of about 75% water, while the remaining 25% is a mixture of dead bacteria, living bacteria, proteins, fats, insoluble-fiber (e.g., corn, carrots) and extra nutrients that your body didn’t absorb. Feces are a great source of information about our bodies and health, because it is the left-over substance that our body doesn’t need. This means that when something isn’t working the way it should be, our poop can tell us why (or at least point us in the right direction).
If harnessed properly, feces can also be a great resource for methane gas production - which can be utilized as a sustainable energy source (e.g., Rwandan prison uses prisoner’s feces to produce its cooking gas). Human waste is also rich in diseases, viruses, good and bad bacteria, parasites and even worm eggs – which is not necessarily a problem, unless you don’t have access to proper sanitation facilities (i.e., a toilet).
Fact #3: The current toilet is bad news!
There are two main problems with the current ‘western’ toilet design that are having significant consequences on the environment.
The first problem is the reliance on water as a flushing mechanism. In the USA, federal plumbing standards specify that new toilets can only use up to 1.6 gallons of water per flush (GPF). However, older toilets sometimes use up to 7 gallons with every flush. (If you go to the bathroom three times a day, that means you are using somewhere between 4.8 gallons up to 21 gallons of water just by flushing the toilet). While there are new designs that aim at decreasing the water usage (e.g., high efficiency toilets that use up to 1.28 GPF), the water flushing mechanism is inherently wasteful.
The second problem is that the design doesn’t allow for the separation of liquids (i.e., urine) and solids (i.e., feces). Even though urine and feces can be processed to be recycled or repurposed, the current method of mixing them in the sewage system makes the separation and recycling process of these materials much more energy-intensive. The only way to be able to efficiently take advantage of these resources is to re-invent the toilet.
But, wait! It’s not all bad news! The good news are that we can each individually address the first problem by updating our toilets to a high efficiency design, retrofitting our old toilets or simply reducing the times you flush on a daily basis. The other good news is that the Gates Foundation has created the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, which has brought significant attention and funding to the toilet problem.
Fact #4: 2.5 billion people lack proper sanitation facilities and 1 billion practice open defecation.
If you are reading this, the probability that you have access to a proper sanitation facility (i.e., a bathroom with a toilet) is pretty high. It’s a privilege that most of us take for granted, because we’ve never experienced otherwise. We are part of the lucky 65% of the world that doesn’t have to worry about finding a safe place to poop every day. The remaining 35% of the world (2.5 billion people) don’t have that commodity. And it gets worse – currently 1 billion people in the world (approximately three times the population of the USA) have no option at all, but to practice open defecation.
Open defecation is when people have no choice but to poop in public. Lack of proper sanitation facilities lead to an exponential increase in the exposure that people have to diseases such as: cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, polio, diarrhea, worm infestation, among others. Open defecation also leads to contaminated sources of water, which in turn leads to a water crisis.
It is estimated that a child dies every 2.5 minutes from preventable diarrhea, largely caused by diseases related to open defecation or lack of sanitary facilities. This means that in the time it has taken you to read this article, two or more children have died victims to the poop crisis.
Yet, we don’t talk about it.
In an effort to end this silence, the United Nations has launched an initiative to end the practice of open defecation by 2025. The campaign aims at raising awareness on the reality of open defecation in parts of the world where it is not an issue. I encourage you to check out the campaign at http://opendefecation.org/
I get it. Now what?
When I was twenty-two, I had the opportunity of truly understanding how spoiled and privileged I had been my whole life when it came to going to the bathroom. I was living in rural Kenya and for the first time in my life I lived in place without plumbing or a western toilet, so I got to re-define the bathroom experience around a pit latrine. Although this was not the first time I had used a latrine, (in fact, most of us have had to figure out alternative bathroom experiences when camping or traveling) it was a transformative experience because it became part of my everyday life. Not only did I learn to appreciate the comfort of a toilet, but it opened my eyes to how interconnected it all is.
The poop crisis is a leading cause of the water crisis, which in turn is a cause of the education crisis, which affects social and economic development all over the world. (Yes, we live in a world ridden with crises and yes, this is an overwhelming thought). So what can we do? We can start by talking about it!
It is a lot easier and more comfortable to focus on the need for clean water or the need for education or the necessity for income generating activities in developing countries. It is not as easy to bring up the poop crisis in every day conversation with our friends and family. But the only way we will instigate change, is by instigating conversations first.
Starting this conversation will not only enable us to end the extreme results of this crisis (i.e., open defecation) and hopefully start to better harness the potential of human waste as an energy source, but it will also enable us as a society to openly start conversing about something that is important and essential to a happy life.
Plus, this is probably the only time that talking shit could actually help make the world a better place.
Kathya Acuña (@acunamontana) is a new contributor to Hug the Rhino. Her topics of choice are as diverse and eclectic as her interests, but all aim at being a thought catalyst. Kathya studied economics and entrepreneurship, but categorizes herself as a lifelong student of the world and is constantly seeking progress toward a more significant life and a more sustainable world.
Want to learn more? Check out these resources:
 To learn more about what your poop is telling you: http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-9453/what-your-poop-is-telling-you-about-your-body-infographic.html
 WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report 2014 update)