Talking Toilets: An Interview with Jason Kass, Founder and President of Toilets for People

By Nicholas Arciniegas

7th Annual TIDES TechnologyField DemonstrationThe “CRAPPER.*” This is the name Jason Kass, Founder and President of “Toilets for People” (TFP) chose for the simple and sustainable toilet design (*“Compact, Rotating, Aerobic, Pollution Prevention Excreta Reducer”) his organization has sold in developing nations for the past two years. Part homage and part description, the CRAPPER’s name was chosen to draw attention to the serious issue of safe sanitation for all, regardless of income or location.

In October 2013, TIDES was delighted to host Toilets for People as an exhibitor at the 7th Annual TIDES Technology Demonstration on Ft. McNair, Washington, D.C. Kass brought a valuable perspective to sustainable development and building partner capacity, two critical components for military visitors and the broader STAR-TIDES network to internalize, by displaying a smart, market-based development approach for supporting populations under stress. Highlighting a simple, low-cost, and sustainable solution that can be owned and maintained by the local population, TFP addressed the critical infrastructure of “sanitation” for vulnerable and remote communities. The message was clear: Despite the CRAPPER’s humorous moniker, TFP’s mission is deadly serious.

The Bathroom Dilemma
An estimated 2.5 billion people do not use an improved sanitation facility. Approximately 780 million people lack access to clean water. The result is adults and children alike are becoming sick or dying because of water-related illnesses such as cholera, or diarrhea often caused by contaminated water.

The most common type of composting toilet currently used worldwide is the “double vault latrine,” an above-ground system consisting of two chambers on a solid reinforced concrete floor . When one of the chambers fills with human waste, small amounts of dry soil is added and the second chamber comes into use. Kass spent a number of years as a member of “Engineers Without Borders” installing double vault latrines in flood-prone areas of developing nations. During one project in El Salvador, Kass and other engineers were waiting for concrete and cement so they could install a dozen of these latrines. Unfortunately, the crew experienced a heavy rain that washed out the roads. Installation became impossible, demonstrating that the suitability of double vault latrines in flood-prone areas is limited by the need to import outside construction materials and the ability to deliver those materials using local infrastructure.

The double vault latrine has other limitations too. At $500 per unit, double vault latrines are cost-prohibitive and restrict the number that can be built in any one community. Even if installation is successful, there is also disposal to consider. Sanitation is not a problem so long as latrines are regularly maintained and emptied of their contents but Kass says that in reality these toilets just fill-up and overflow. All of this makes the vault latrine design a highly unpopular and unsustainable solution. This suggests the need for a better alternative. Kass became convinced a better alternative must be feasible. This is where “Toilets for People” comes into focus.

The CRAPPER Design
tfp3 Drawing inspiration from his Vermont home where he constructed a toilet out of plastic using off-the-shelf materials, Kass started Toilets for People with the goal of designing a sanitary toilet that craftsmen in a community could build using locally available materials. Kass reasoned, “if I can build a version of this toilet for me, I should be able to design one for others as well.” When he returned to El Salvador, Kass and his team of engineers successfully built a prototype of the CRAPPER for under $100, far less than the cost of the vault latrine design they had used previously. Since then, “Toilets for People” has grown to include projects in Haiti, Peru, Senegal, and India with plans to expand into Nicaragua. The flexibility of the CRAPPER’s design helps ensure that in whichever country the toilet is introduced, installation is both affordable and sustainable. Kass explains:

“In El Salvador, we had access to a plastic drum, which is not hard to come by. In Senegal, the local craftsmen have a broader scope, so we were able to train them to design a version made of wood materials. It really just depends on the skills of the people and the materials that are available.”

So how does the CRAPPER work? The basic design incorporates composting, an aerobic process widely used in Europe and North America for many years to treat waste matter in place of water. By employing a three-step biological, physical, and chemical process, disease-causing, pathogen-rich waste is transformed into a safe, disposable waste product without impact to the environment or causing disease.

The process starts when a user adds dry cover material such as dry leaves, saw dust, or peanut husks to human waste. A composting barrel containing the waste is spun much like a garden composter three times weekly. Together, this cover material and spinning enables micro-organisms to eat the waste and ensures composting. The result is a reduction in waste volume by 80%, mitigation of odors, and lessened presence of dangerous pathogens. Some of the composted material is ready for disposal after a few months, depending on the toilet’s usage. With the waste door open, the drum is spun to allow waste to fall into a bucket below where the waste remains until the next time the drum needs to be emptied—typically about three months. At this point, the compost can safely be buried outside with wood ash readily accessible to families in developing countries, who cook with wood or charcoal. Ash has a naturally high pH and acts as an extra precaution against any remaining pathogens in the waste by disinfecting pathogens and creating a caustic environment. Once the compost and ash is buried in the ground, dirt is then used to cover the hole.

The CRAPPER offers an advantage over public toilets that often become unsanitary and cease to function when there is no one willing to assume the responsibility of upkeep. Despite the need for routine maintenance, the CRAPPER’s spinning and disposal tasks are relatively straight-forward and infrequent. Similarly, whereas double vault latrines result in the collection of large volumes of waste, the CRAPPER’s simple design allows for family or other private ownership. Family members and friends therefore have greater access to toilets with TFP-supplied recommendations regarding where to optimally locate the toilet to maximize light and ventilation.

Motfp1re importantly, unlike some other organizations, TFP’s toilets are not donated but are instead sold using one of two market-based approaches. Often TFP cooperates with NGO’s to subsidize the initial costs of buying off-the-shelf construction materials and help locals sell the toilets in their communities. Alternatively, toilets are produced in-house and shipped to areas where people looking to resell the CRAPPER can afford the $200 purchase price. TFP’s decision to pursue market-based approaches is built on the idea that a person who pays for something will value it more than one who gets it for free and provides the local population with a critical sense of ownership, pride, and confidence in their ability to care for their own community. In the longer-term, this increased confidence also ensures a greater likelihood that the product is accepted locally and the solution is sustainable.

Kass emphasizes that it’s the people who are most important: “We are a social company. We decided not to be a 501(c) in part because we wanted to help people start their own sustainable businesses based around sanitation.” Compared to projects that are more charitably based, “market-based” solutions allow locals to scale their businesses as needed, and ultimately allows TFP to reach the maximum people possible.

Looking Ahead
tfp2TFP’s continuing efforts to provide people globally with access to safe sanitation have not gone unnoticed. On Friday, April 26, 2014, Toilets for People won top honors at the Columbia Engineering Venture Competition at Columbia University in New York City. Toilets for People remains a valued member of the STAR-TIDES network and trusted reference in sustainable support to populations under stress. We look forward to continuing to work with Jason Kass, and the entire team at TFP  .

To support Toilets for People or learn more about their work, you can view their current fundraising efforts at Indiegogo or visit their website at: ToiletsforPeople.com. You can also email Jason Kass (jasonjacobkass@gmail.com).

Nicholas Arciniegas is a TIDES intern at the Center for Technology & National Security Policy in National Defense University, Washington, D.C. (narcinie@gmail.com).

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About startides

TIDES Research Assistant Intern
This entry was posted in Building Partner Capacity, Humanitarian Assistance/ Disaster Response, Sanitation, Stability & Reconstruction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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