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World’s biggest eco-toilet project ends in failure

The dry toilets in a Chinese eco community have been quietly replaced after three years of bad smells, health problems and maggots. Wu Shan reports.

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The large banner at the front gate of what used to be called Daxing Ecological Community has been changed to read “Civilized City”. A showroom by the nearby supermarket is locked up and empty while a little further away, near a scenic lake, lies a rubbish dump of dry toilets, piles of blue excrement buckets and recycling containers.

While the evidence of the world’s biggest dry toilet experiment has been removed, the stench it created lingers in the memories of residents of the apartment complex in Ordos, Inner Mongolia. After three years of problems, the entire sewerage and wastewater handling system has been replaced and normal flushing toilets installed.

The ecological community has lost its most important symbol – its eco-toilets. 

Bad smells, health problems, maggots

Yan Jianping is a lawyer and also chair of the Daxing’s residents’ committee. While using the dry eco-toilets from 2006 to 2009, he and his family felt like they had been taken hostage, he said.

Yan heard of the new apartment complex in 2006. Finding homes in the city too expensive, he visited Daxing and liked the gardens, the roads and the public spaces. Moreover, it was cheap, and the environmental ideas sounded quite fashionable.

On March 8, 2006, he paid 143,800 yuan (US$22,500) for a two-bedroom apartment, and moved in on July 1. Then his toilet nightmare began.

The eco-toilets installed at Daxing were the design of Sweden’s Stockholm Environment Institute – about five million people use the model worldwide. In China, they are manufactured in the south-coast city of Chaozhou and cost about 700 or 800 yuan (US$100-125). Unlike normal toilets, they separate urine and excrement. In short, you aim your urine at the urine bowl and it is piped to an underground storage tank. And when you sit down, an excrement receptacle automatically pops out. You pull a lever to sprinkle some sawdust over your waste, and then when you stand up it flips over and everything is dumped down an excrement pipe to a tank in the basement. The tank is emptied two or three times monthly.

No water is used for flushing in either case – the cistern is full of sawdust, which residents collect from an office on-site. The toilets are designed to save water, prevent odours, and turn excrement into fertiliser. Fans blow air out of the pipes to the roof, and this is meant to ensure that smells do not enter the apartments. 

Yan’s family just couldn’t get used to it. The eco-toilet smelled bad from day one, they said: there was a stench of ammonia throughout the house, sometimes enough to make their eyes water as soon as they stepped into the bathroom. “I could hardly eat at home, and felt miserable on my way back after work,” said Yan. So the family usually ended up eating at Yan’s sister’s house. And their relatives didn't want to visit.

The excrement bowls, which need to rotate, started to break. Every single house had to have the bowls repaired, and in 60% of households they needed to be replaced frequently. In 2007, Yan’s toilet was changed for one with a retractable tray, but the smells didn’t improve.

In the winter of 2007, the speed of the fans was increased following complaints about the smells. With the windows tightly closed for winter, Yan could feel the warm air in the room being sucked down the eco-toilet as he sat on it. Twice he woke up with breathing difficulties and had to open the window for 30 minutes before he felt better, he said.

Another resident Gao Jixiang, who lived with a dry toilet from 2004 to 2009, didn’t much enjoy it either. “Getting home was like stepping into a public toilet,” he said. Sometimes he had to eat dinner on the balcony.

The sawdust used in the eco-toilets created other concerns for Wang Cuilan and the other women living at Daxing: the sawdust that drifted upwards caused them vaginal discomfort, they said. They exchanged tips on how to relieve the irritation, such as boiling up willow leaves.

They were even more upset about the maggots crawling out of the eco-toilet, and the increasing number of cockroaches. On one occasion, Wang Cuilan spent 300 yuan (US$47) on poisons to try to get rid of them.

An eco-toilet winter of smells

The winter of 2007 was the coldest in Ordos for a decade, and the phone on the desk belonging to Lu Zhanrong, head of the office in charge of the sanitation system, rang off the hook. Despite temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius, workers had to crawl over the icy roof to fix the ventilation. Some winters, this needed to be done three times.

In the winter of 2008, the smells got so bad that the rooms were unliveable, and the residents were finally at the end of their tether. They barricaded Lu and his workers in an apartment: “Let them see how they like living in a toilet.”

By then, the city was developing rapidly and the ecological complex was surrounded by other buildings with flushing toilets. Gao Jixiang had written to the developers and the government to complain about conditions at Daxing, but both said that technical problems should be referred to SEI. And so Gao wrote to Arno Rosemarin, researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute with responsibility for the Ordos Ecological City Project. Rosemarin decided to visit the project to see for himself what was going on.

In the spring of 2008, the community and SEI started to negotiate. They discussed the gynaecological problems which women in 15% of households were complaining of, and the smells that troubled most of the residents. Rosemarin had two meetings with the residents, who were angry and demanded new flushing toilets.

In 2008, Rosemarin suggested that the developer upgrade the water pipes. “But they didn’t want to, and I had no way to apply any pressure,” he said.

In March 2008, SEI sent two German experts to investigate. “When they saw the piping in the basement, they were furious,” recalled Lu Zhanrong, head of the office in charge of the sanitation system. “They said the developer was irresponsible, and that the building had quality problems.”

From March this year, they started installing unpowered ventilators imported from Germany. In May, the power to the fans at the base of the building was turned up. In June, they sealed the excrement tanks up in containers. “And that was all that could be done,” said Lu.

In 2008, SEI hired Li Zifu of Beijing University of Science and Technology to take a look at the installation of the sanitation system, but nothing came of it. “There was mass support for a return to flushing toilets. There was no indication of where the money for fixing the current system would come from, and the government had no confidence it could be done,” said Li.

The death of the eco-toilet

In the winter of 2008, discontent peaked. On December 22, a residents’ committee was formed, and Gao Jixiang became its first chair. He stuck up the letters he had written to the district and city governments in the public areas of the apartment complex.

In the first half of 2009, Gao Jixiang and other committee members started to send letters directly to the Swedish embassy. In June of that year, the district government funded a return to flushing eco-toilets and the dry toilet project was officially cancelled. The office managing the sanitation system was closed.

The new eco-toilets were accompanied by a septic tank. In 2010, the pipe feeding waste water to the lake was redirected to connect directly to the wastewater treatment plant.

And so the world’s largest dry toilet apartment complex disappeared, as if it had all been a dream.

For a response to this story from the Stockholm Environment Institute, see "Doomed eco-toilet scheme was 'valuable experience'".

This article was first published in Southern Metropolis Daily, where Wu Shan is a reporter.

It is translated and published as part of our Green Growth project, a collaboration between
 chinadialogue and The Energy Foundation.

Homepage image by nddaily.com

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鄂尔多斯的生态项目及其他 (2)


On the Ordos Ecotown Project and beyond (2)

On the other hand, the result of the field pilot is so concrete and impossible to hide. It is heartbroken to see the ‘toilet graveyard’ after years’ dedicated efforts. One can read and see those grand efforts of research and development, Ecotown Project in Ordos included, as horrible failures. But, one should never forget the motivation and the grand needs to which a new way of living and city-building has to be explored if sustainability is the ultimate pursuit. The longing for scaling up and large-scale implementation is THE change that the sustainable sanitation community is inspired to achieve. Yet, we are so afraid of failure and we do not even want to talk about it. By the end of day, the truth is, those pilots are vital if we want to move forward with real changes on the ground instead of hiding behind the words and nice publications. Regardless how well we do the talk, to walk the talk remains to be the critical need and a much greater challenge. Many of those innovative explorations will fail, for sure. But some will succeed and when they do, and only then, we can be proud that genuine progress has been made.

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On the Ordos Ecotown project and beyond (1)

On the Ordos Ecotown Project and beyond (1)

More often than not, when we attend sustainable sanitation related events and exchange experiences and discussing progresses and achievements, the knowledge and capacity developments are mostly very successful while the field pilots are mostly failures in various forms.

True as much as they are, the very sensation attached to the so-called success and failure is quite problematic, if we are to promote the real changes on the ground. It is easy or at least easier in comparison for us to write another report or provide another well-attended training workshop, and PDF the results and make them available on the net so that we can claim, quite rightly, that we have done the deed and made our contribution to the knowledge development and capacity building. The outcomes and impacts of such knowledge production and capacity building are however hard to measure therefore easy to claim.

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Lack of logic in technology choice and implementation

All basic tenets of implementation were ignored here:
1. The tenants were not asked if they were willing to live with toilets requiring management of the contents. They would not install woodstoves, would they? Then why toilets that required management by the user?

2. The toilet design and composter choices were poorly designed and poorly installed.

3. There was no operation and maintenance team.

Ecological sanitation is successfully used by millions worldwide. In the cases where many systems are installed in affordable housing with no input from the residents and with inappropriate ecological sanitation equipment choices, poor installation, and no maintenance, they fail.

All parties involved in this project should have known better.