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Designing for the Intimate Shared Reality of All Species

All humans, regardless of age, gender, race, rank, wealth, or power must excrete bodily waste on a regular basis. Humans and all other species share this intimate reality. As humans we are still attempting to manage our bodily waste as a resource without severely impacting or destroying other species and ourselves. This installation and website explore how we might advance that goal.  It may disgust you, it may make you uncomfortable, but there is no escaping this most basic of realities for living things.

Clarified wastewater. Photo credit: Bjørn Kristensen

 

Images of the Exhibition

1 Room 2 1 Transpecies Design, College of Design at University of Oregon. Curated by Adria

Photo credit: Federico Vespignani

1 Room 2 3 Transpecies Design, College of Design at University of Oregon. Curated by Adria

Photo credit: Federico Vespignani

 

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Photo credit: Michael Zaretsky

 

Photo credit: Andrew and Maggie Young

 

Walk-through. Video credit: Sebastien Tilmans

 

The Pillar

With this work, we hope to bring awareness to the transpecies entanglements and consider some of the species who are implicated in sanitation practices within informal settlements. There are both broader socio-environmental impacts of sanitation practices, and individual lives—human and more-than-human—which are integrally tied to, yet often abstracted from, these processes. 

 

Without sanitation infrastructure, informal settlements are often forced to empty excreta into rivers, estuaries, and oceans. The high concentrations of nutrients cause eutrophication, dead zones, and toxic algal blooms resulting in severe impacts for local aquatic life including fish, mollusks, and marine mammals.

 

Additionally, excreta are contaminated with E. coli, vibrio cholerae, and many other bacteria and viruses. These microorganisms commonly intersect with humans in dense informal urban environments and adjacent aquatic spaces. Diarrheal diseases and cholera are a consequence of consuming excreta contaminated water or food.

 

Container-Based Sanitation (CBS) allows providers to collect containers in dense informal settlements where narrow alleyways make other technologies difficult or impractical. Since toilet waste is not mixed with water from other household tasks, providers can convert the undiluted and nutrient rich excreta into valuable products, such as biogas, solid fuel, biochar, and compost. Some approaches use excreta as feed for black soldier flies, whose larvae are a protein-rich feed for livestock such as chickens, pigs, and fish. In locations where wastewater treatment infrastructure already exists, excreta from CBS containers can be integrated. The treatment system can then use numerous varieties of microorganisms and constructed wetlands to allow safe release into the environment.

Depending on the resource recapture technology employed during treatment, CBS can significantly contribute to carbon sequestration. Further, because CBS does not require water, implementing CBS systems not only helps to avoid water-borne disease spread in human communities, but additionally avoids the negative impacts of environmental contamination on other species.

Potential and Peril

All humans, regardless of age, gender, race, rank, wealth, or power must excrete bodily waste on a regular basis. All species share this intimate reality. However, in contrast to most species, humans are still learning how to manage our bodily waste as a resource to be processed and reused instead of as a pollutant to be released into the environment.

 

Humanity is experiencing its largest migration ever from rural areas to urban settlements where more than a billion people currently live in informal housing. Many governments and cities are struggling to finance and provide access to improved sanitation and piped water. This often leads to residents engaging alternative sanitation options such as pit latrines—generally a hole dug in the ground—or defecating in the open. This presents public health, environmental, and human well being issues, while also creating multi-species entanglements. 

 

Over the last decade hundreds of practitioners, researchers, and everyday people have been collaboratively designing an alternative improved sanitation system called Container-Based Sanitation (CBS). CBS is a service which provides toilets that collect human excreta in sealable, removable containers that are regularly collected and transported to treatment facilities where excreta can be safely disposed or reused.

 

We hope to communicate three crucial points: 
1) Sanitation processes necessarily involve other species who are often backgrounded—or remain largely unexamined entities—within typical considerations. 
2) The benefits of improved sanitation are not confined to humans or one system. A diversity of other species also stands to benefit from inclusive and diverse approaches to sanitation. 
3) The realization of a wider transpecies community is integral in coming to terms with the global sanitation crisis—a wicked problem calling for considerations beyond a narrow anthropocentric worldview.

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Credit: Audrey Rycewicz

2023 ASLE+AESS Talks

Kory Russel

Bjørn Kristensen

Talks from Kory Russel and Bjørn Kristensen, presented at the 2023 ASLE + AESS Conference in Portland Oregon in the session entitled "Designing for the Shared Intimate Reality of All Species."

 

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Photo credit: Kory Russel

 

Resource Recovery

Within the peekaboo tunnel of the exhibit pillar, there are six vessels containing products derived from waste and wastewater.  Below are links to more information about each of these energy, water and nutrient products currently being manufactured around the globe.

Sanitation Service Typologies

There are many different ways societies handle and remove human waste.  The exhibit in Venice focuses on the emerging Container-Based Sanitation (CBS) system. Below we explore CBS as well as three traditional typologies

Sewer sludge. Photo credit: Bjørn Kristensen

 

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Container-Based Sanitation (CBS) is a sanitation system where toilets collect human waste in containers which are then sealed and transported to treatment facilities.

A sewer is a network of pipes which carry human waste away from homes and businesses using water to arrive at a treatment facility. Wastewater is then treated to remove contaminates before being released back into the environment.

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Pit latrines which can be both lined or unlined, collect human waste in a hole in the ground. Septic tanks collect human waste and wastewater together in a tank where solids settle out while liquids are infiltrated into the ground through a leach field.

Open defecation is exactly what it sounds like. It is the act of defecating in the open, typically because an individual lacks access to sanitation facilities.

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Container-based sanitation toilet. Photo credit: Felipe Jacome

 

Container-Based Sanitation

Globally, more than1 billion people live in informal off-grid housing without access to improved sanitation. These dense urban settlements lack access to piped water systems and must find other options when disposing of human waste. In some cases, this means using a pit latrine, which is usually no more than a hole dug in the ground. In other cases, they may practice open defecation. These options both present issues in terms of public health, environmental contamination, and human well being, and they also entangle humans within multi-species relationships. Vibrio cholerae is a common species that intersects with human lives in dense urban environments. Cholera in humans results largely from consuming contaminated drinking water, often also a result of unimproved sanitation.

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Norway rat. Photo credit: Bjørn Kristensen

 

Norway rats are also a ubiquitous presence in dense urban settlements. Both humans living in such settlements, and the rats themselves, are harmed by the presence of untreated sewage and runoff. Leptospirosis is a deadly bacterial disease that Norway rats are often capable of spreading, and they tend to be blamed and sometimes killed for doing so. It is unlikely that rats will be eradicated, and doing so could have animal welfare implications. Yet, beyond this it may be distracting from a more important consideration that aligns with working toward solutions to improved sanitation in informal settlements. Despite the presence of such rats in a variety of human communities, most cases of spillover events tend to occur in dense urban environments with untreated sewage and runoff. Piped water and sewer systems are not feasible within most dense urban environments in the Global South. Therefore, improved affordable and sustainable approaches to sanitation in such locales—such as container-based sanitation systems—have the potential to improve both human and more-than-human lives.

More information on CBS can be found at:

- Container-Based Sanitation Alliance

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Designated as improved sanitation by the Joint Monitoring Programme of the WHO and UNICEF in 2019, container-based sanitation (CBS) has rapidly gained traction and interest globally. CBS is a sanitation service which provides toilets that collect human excreta in sealable, removable containers on a regular basis and safely disposes of or reuses excreta. This allows collectors to provide service pick up in dense informal settlements where narrow alleyways make other technologies difficult or impractical. While some CBS service providers manage the entire sanitation service chain themselves, others partner with multiple groups to implement parts of the service model. Since toilet waste is not mixed with water from other household tasks, many providers take advantage of the nutrient rich waste to convert the undiluted excreta into reuse products, such as biogas, solid fuel, compost, and animal feed. Moreover, depending on the resource recapture and reuse technology employed during treatment, CBS can significantly contribute to carbon sequestration. Lastly, for families, a CBS system typically represents a substantially lower initial investment compared to the cost of constructing a latrine or pour flush toilet.

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A dog lounges in the road of an informal settlement which lacks formal water and sanitation services in Lima, Peru. Photo credit: Bjørn Kristensen

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Clean Water Services wastewater treatment plant in the Portland, Oregon area

Photo credit: Bjørn Kristensen

Sewers

Sewers are widely considered the gold standard of urban sanitation. However, they are also incredibly resource intensive. Water is typically extracted from a surface source such as a river. The water is then treated to drinking water quality and distributed through a network of pipes throughout an urban area. Homes use the water for domestic activities such as cooking, cleaning, and flushing toilets. In a sewer pipe, 99.9% of what flows to a treatment facility is from homes is water while just 0.1% is waste. Intensive treatment is undertaken to remove contaminates before the water is released back into aquatic systems, where another municipality may access it leading to what is known as de facto reuse. It is estimated that roughly 5-8% of global methane emissions come from wastewater. While the conceptual design around a system of pipes has changed little since their introduction in the 1800’s, great innovations have been achieved in treatment technologies, such as energy and nutrient recapture as well as treatment wetlands that create ideal habitat for birds and other animals.

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Clean Water Services Senior Research Program Manager Blythe Layton testing water samples. Photo credit: Bjørn Kristensen

 

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Ducklings in a constructed wetland. Photo credit: Bjørn Kristensen

 

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Clean Water Services constructed wetland. Photo credit: Bjørn Kristensen

 

Although quite water intensive, one treatment option applied in the context of sewered systems simultaneously provides green areas for humans to use for recreational and aesthetic purposes, as well as a habitat for numerous species of animals and plants: constructed wetlands. This approach to the treatment of wastewater could also be applied to the waste collected through container-based sanitation systems and septic systems as well. Some constructed wetlands have become recognized wildlife sanctuaries. Particularly in the context of dense metropolises that are rarely built with the interests of other species in mind, such approaches to treatment can provide safe havens for species that do not have many other places to go. This may be particularly important with regard to migratory birds looking for stopovers on their long journeys. We might see constructed wetlands therefore as a rare example of urban development that accounts for and invites in numerous other species. An example of a species that may benefit from the presence of constructed wetlands—particularly in coastal cities on the Pacific ocean—is the black skimmer. They are a species of shore bird whose populations have declined significantly in the last 25 years, due largely to human development of sandy coastal areas where they nest. In this case, constructed wetlands can serve the interests of both humans and other animals.

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A pit latrine in Lima, Peru. Photo credit: Kory Russel

 

Pit Latrines
and
Septic Tanks

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Biogas (methane) from wastewater being flared. Photo credit: Bjørn Kristensen

 

On-site sanitation options, such as toilets with septic tanks or pit latrines, are the solutions most often adopted by low-income households who gain access to sanitation facilities. Onsite facilities can provide a private place for defecation and initially isolate excreta (feces and urine) from human contact. These systems may leach contaminants into soil and groundwater, and recent studies have found that septic tanks and pit latrines in high water table locations are emitting roughly 2% of global methane while they are waiting to be emptied. However, assuming there is proper maintenance and emptying of pits and tanks with suction trucks, the waste can be converted to several reuse products including biogas, solid fuel, and compost. These reuse products can reduce the reliance on charcoal fuels that drive deforestation.

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Deforestation on the slopes of Mount Gorongosa in Mozambique. Photo credit: Bern Moorehead

 

Each morning in east Africa, men and women set out for their farm plots. In fact, 65% of Africa’s population is reliant on subsistence farming. At the same time, 90% of tropical deforestation is a direct or indirect result of agriculture. This is not meant as a criticism of these farmers but merely to point out the link between agricultural expansion and deforestation. In countries like Kenya, there is an additional demand on forests to produce charcoal which meets more than 70% of domestic energy demand for cooking and heating. All this deforestation is leading to a critical loss of habitat for well-known species like African elephants, lions, buffalo, giraffes, wild dogs, hippopotamuses, and crocodiles as well as so many more.

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Black Solder Fly Larva processed and ready for reuse. Photo credit: Kory Russel

 

Currently, half of all people lacking even basic sanitation services live in rural sub-Saharan Africa where they are struggling against a spiral of poverty and species loss. However, sanitation may hold a part of the answer to a much more sustainable future. Human waste from pit latrines and septic tanks can be combined with agricultural and organic wastes to create solid biomass fuels, animal feed, fertilizers, and compost. Every ton of solid biomass fuel from feces can save 88 trees according to Sanivation in Kenya. Likewise, high protein animal feed from black soldier fly larva and nutrient rich compost can improve agricultural outputs and reduce the need to clear more forests.

Wastewater treatment is responsible for 5-8% of global anthropogenic methane (methane being 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere). In the United States, 1 in 5 households uses a septic tank.

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Open defection. Photo credit: Kory Russel

 

Open Defecation

Open defecation (OD) is the practice of defecating in the open, this may be a field, into a river or tidal flat, or along a street. Flying toilets are another method where an individual defecates into a plastic bag or takeout food container and throws it into alleyways, onto roofs, or into water bodies. All these forms of OD release untreated waste into the community, resulting in disease transmission and environmental pollution. Even more insidious, the practice creates anxiety around every defecation for an individual as well as stripping a person of their dignity and basic right to privacy. This in turn can lead to stigmatization within communities and loss of economic opportunities.

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Snake. Photo credit: Bjørn Kristensen

 

While more private and dignified, on-site sanitation options, (toilets with septic tanks or pit latrines), that are not properly maintained or emptied, lead to similar negative health, environmental, and economic outcomes. Especially in the narrow, irregular street layouts of many low-income urban neighborhoods, emptying must be undertaken manually, with the risk of exposure to fecal pathogens for both laborers and community members. Other options such as shared or public facilities are located at a distance from the home and are typically closed at night. Residents must therefore find other alternatives to meet their sanitation needs, and this can be particularly hazardous for women and children.

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Six percent of the world’s population (around 500 million people) are forced to practice open defecation. This poses numerous concerns in terms of human well-being, safety, and environmental contamination. In rural India, the national census in 2011 estimated more than 90% of people practiced open defecation. As a result, there has been concentrated efforts across India in recent years to vastly reduce this number. However, open defecation, when practiced, leads to contamination of water supplies and numerous waterborne illnesses. In terms of the impacts on human-animal relationships, open defecation also results in an increased potential for attacks by snakes and other animals. Due to social gender norms in India, this is particularly likely for women and girls who are both more likely to go out at earlier and later times of the day, as well as to go further distances. While we want to highlight the importance of considering such implications in the context of humans, it is also clear that improved sanitation in this case is also in the interest of wildlife, as it could be seen as an approach to mitigating human-wildlife conflicts.

Impacts of open defecation include a loss of dignity, fewer economic
opportunities, risk of exposure to disease and pathogens, and
environmental pollution. Open defecation and public sanitation
options often expose women and girls to higher risks of violence and harassment.

More Sanitation at the 2023 Biennale

The 2023 Architectural Biennale has a number of sanitation focused exhibits.  Below are two more exhibits you should check out.

Photo: ARCH+ SUMMACUMMFEMMER BÜRO JULIANE GREB

Photo: Ugo Carmeni

Circular Sanitation Days

The German pavilion hosted the Circular Sanitation Days Workshop in October 2023 at the Architectural Biennale. This workshop included tours of the German and Finish pavilions as well as a visit to the Designing for the Intimate Shared Reality of All Species exhibit.

To learn more about the workshop and access some of the talks check out the following links:

https://www.instagram.com/germanpavilionvenice/

 

https://openformaintenance.net/

The Finish pavilion also provides some great videos and literature based on the concept of "the death of the flushing toilet."

https://ao-publishing.com/product/huussi-death-to-the-flushing-toilet/

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJlvjW7xAC0pWkfLKBXU8Hbme4VvP-b6V

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Meet the Team

This was a collaborative work.

A special acknowledgement to the Water and Wastewater Working Group at the APRU Sustainable Cities and Landscapes Hub Annual Conference 2022 which included, Eliza Aronson, Rachael Lee, Giang Phung, Cindy Priadi, and Erik Porse. The working group helped to brainstorm and develop some of the early ideas that eventually became this companion page to the biennial exhibit during the 2022 conference working group session.

A special thanks to all the folks at Clean Water Services including, Blythe Layton, Elysia O'Connor, Seth Winkelhake, Matt Christensen, and Erik Lorntson

Partial funding for this work was provided by a 2021 University of Oregon Faculty Research Award

 

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