When we think about the history of our ancestors, we tend to ask ourselves many questions, what and how they used to eat and drink, what social customs they had, how they traveled, what they worked on… But rarely do we ask ourselves, how they used to relieve themselves and manage their waste.
It is a simple question because, for most of us, this is a thing of the past, an issue so resolved that it is hard to think of any other option than the conventional toilet, however, like everything else, it has been a development that has been given according to the needs of the time.
In ancient times the matter was simple, there was a lot of space outdoors. The impact generated was so low that it could be said to be zero. Modesty did not yet matter, humans were nomadic, they hunted and gathered, and civilization as we know it did not yet exist. With the passage of time and the development of sedentary activities, mainly agriculture, the first populations were formed. Small farming settlements such as Çatalhöyük, on the Anatolian plateau of Konya (present-day Turkey), dating back 9,000 years and with about 4,000 inhabitants, have the oldest record of fecal management. While the nomads used to relieve themselves everywhere, here there was already a specific site for the waste. It is not known whether they first did it in their homes and then carried it to the site or it was used as a public toilet, but what we understand by latrines would not appear until 3,000 years later in the great Mesopotamian cities.
It was not until the great Roman empire that they came very close to the current idea of the toilet with its system of public latrines with running water, which immediately carried the depositions to a series of subway sewers so that bad odors were kept to an acceptable minimum. The high maintenance required by these facilities, which were often part of the buildings, led to them being forgotten after the collapse of the empire, and for centuries waste management was a disaster, with urinals being emptied into the street at the shout of “Water!” only helping to spread disease. Until 1596, when the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir John Harrington, conceived a toilet connected to a water tank that flushed the waste when it was discharged.
The reasons why Harrington’s idea was not continued and remained for the exclusive use of the queen are unknown. Two centuries passed before it was taken up again by Alexander Cummings, who invented the modern toilet. In 1775 the French watchmaker and inventor filed a patent for a toilet that worked the same as Harrington’s but with the improvement of the siphon, a water “barrier” in the shape of an S. This prevented bad odors from returning to the bathroom and allowed it to be installed inside all homes. The toilet had been invented. The benefits that this system provided to the development of culture and the quality of life in large cities have been unprecedented. The facility it provides us to date is something that we take for granted so much that it has cost us to continue improving this invention or simply look for other methods given the current needs.
Today, the world’s population exceeds 8 billion inhabitants, which can be translated into the production of more than 1.6 billion tons of waste per day. More than half of this is conducted away from homes by drainage systems that do not always end up cleaning the water that carries them; in 2020, 45% of the domestic wastewater generated in the world was discharged without applying a safe treatment. The problem of sanitation and waste management in cities has not been solved, it has only been moved away from them. On a small scale, the impact had not been so strong, but years of dumping this sewage into rivers, lakes, and seas are one of the factors that have led to a new crisis, now worldwide, the shortage of drinking water.
Currently, alternative solutions to the toilet have been sought, not only to combat the growing pollution it produces but also to reduce the economic impact of wastewater treatment. Many proposals have been designed throughout the modern years, but the solution lies, curiously enough, in the past. Modern ecological dry toilets were developed with this objective in mind, as well as proposing a more balanced handling of excreta, which, as the Aztecs did by separating it from urine and transporting it in large canoes, can be used as fertilizer.
These systems for separating liquids and solids ensure that feces are composted, i.e., that they undergo an aerobic degradation process in which human organic matter is mineralized, pasteurized and all pathogenic microorganisms that we excrete when we defecate are destroyed.
Agriculture has always been the engine of civilization; its evolution has been the evolution of humanity. Just as it is the origin of much technology that is later used in everyday life, its influence and importance are irrefutable. Given the circumstances in which we live, the path we decide to take is crucial to the destiny of the next generations. Although the current challenge is strong, the economic, competitive, and ecological advantages offered by dry ecological toilets can prevent future crises and guide society toward a tomorrow that is more balanced with nature.
At SANIMEX we want to be part of this story and for 35 years we have been proposing ecological solutions for the economy and water saving in the field. With our flagship product, the Dry Ecological Sanitary Module, which makes the eco-technology of separating solids and liquids available to the mass public, we intend to leave our mark. My name is Roberto Haza Estrada, and I will be pleased to help you.