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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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Default thumb avatar
khan

鄂尔多斯的生态项目及其他 (2)

另一方面,实地项目的成果通常是实体的,最后的结果更难以变更。研究人员多年的心血却换来一个"马桶坟场"的恶名,实在令人遗憾。长久以来,许多投注大量心力的项目以失败终结,而鄂尔多斯的生态马桶项目不过是其中一例。但从这些失败的例子中,我们应永不忘记,城市规划及生活的永续经营需要以强烈的动机及需求来推动。在鄂尔多斯的例子中,我们学到,社区卫生的永续经营需要大规模的完备规划。遗憾是我们害怕失败,於是不愿检视失败的原因。事实上,如果我们要在城市的永续经营有所进展,这些实验性项目是必要的,我们不能一昧追求美好的数据及空谈成果。我们必须将言论付诸实现,而将想法付诸实行才是我们面临的真正挑战。当然,创新的计画并不一定可行。然而,一旦这些创新的计画成功,我们可以骄傲回首我们一路走来的进展。

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.

Default thumb avatar
khan

鄂尔多斯的生态项目及其他(1)

通常,我们参加可持续环境卫生的相关活动,交换经验以及讨论进展和成果时,从知识和能力扩展上来说总是非常成功,而在实地试行的时候却大多数千奇百怪地失败了。

即便如此,如果要推动实实在在的进步,眼下对所谓“成败”的强调很成问题。对于我们来说,写新的报告,组织新的高占座率的研讨会,用PDF把成果发布在网上,然后就可以声称,没错,我们做了实事,并为发展知识和培养能力做了贡献。这很容易,至少相对来讲容易得多。然而,知识扩展和能力培养的效果和影响说来容易,衡量起来却很难。

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.

Default thumb avatar
ecowaters

在技术选择和实现技术方面缺乏逻辑

这里缺少了实现技术的所有原则:

1、首先,没人问他们是否愿意使用这种需要内容管理的马桶。他们不会安装木炭炉的,不是吗?所以用户怎么会接受需要管理的马桶呢?

2、马桶的设计很差,堆肥装置安装得也不好。

3、没有运营和维修团队。

世界上有上百万人成功应用了生态排水装置。但是在这个案例中,很多系统被安装在简陋的房屋中,没有住户的投入,也没有适当的生态排水设备,不仅装备简陋,而且没人维修,所以他们失败了。

参与这个项目的各方应该早就知道这些了。

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.