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Reinvent the toilet, save the world? Ecuador is betting on it.

Dry compost toilets could help prevent disease. (Vanessa Hua)

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — The composting toilet is adorable; all cheery plastic curves in a bright Smurf blue. It seems to belong in a playhouse.

Outside, roosters strut and crow, pigs snort and snuffle in their cinderblock pens, and a gaggle of children race around the countryside east of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city. The late afternoon is swollen with heat, but the outhouse itself is shady and cool, miraculously free of any stink — the stench of a Honey Bucket at a construction site, of a grotty urinal at a dive bar, or even the flush toilet frequented by my four-year-old twin boys.

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Founded in 2007, Fundacion in Terris develops dry, composting toilets designed for poor families – an alternative to unsanitary open defecation and water-wasting flush models. About 2.5 billion people around the world lack access to safe sanitation. If captured and stored improperly, human waste can contaminate drinking water and lead to disease and death. About 1.5 million children die each year of diarrheal diseases, much of which could be prevented with improved sanitation and safe drinking water. A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported development, field testing and commercialization of these injection-molded plastic toilets, which costs about $300.

Now hundreds of the group’s toilets are used around Ecuador and Africa, in rural and urban settings where the government has yet to install sewage systems and may not for decades. The models have evolved over the years, with the earliest versions cobbled together out of wood, PVC pipe, and a bicycle’s spoke and chain.

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In one version, you pull the lever and your deposit disappears under a trap door – poof! – you don’t have to think about it again. At least not immediately. The compost rolls down a flexible pipe into a plastic barrel that fills up, then is capped and set aside to dry out. After six months, the compost is ready to sprinkle as fertilizer. It’s not intended for lettuce and other food crops, to avoid possible contamination by E. coli and other pathogens, but it's perfectly safe for flowers and even fruit orchards.

Studies show that cultural beliefs can slow the adoption of dry toilets, pit latrines, and other efforts to improve sanitation. In a recent study of dry toilets in coastal Tanzania, an area dominated by Muslims, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed considered the handling of feces and urine as “unholy.”

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The Kichwa people of Saryaku, in the Amazon in northern Ecuador, were interested in such toilets, but balked at using the compost. Upon death, your body returns to the earth. If something passes from their bodies, it can’t be used again, says Juan Pablo Argüello, who coordinates the group’s contracts with local NGOS and municipalities.

It gets me thinking about our own culture’s simultaneous obsession and squeamishness with bodily functions, the abundance of euphemisms for the act, and the appropriation of such words to express anger, shock, and awe. The same kind of awe that we had as toddlers peering into our potty and realizing, hey, I made that — invoking the disgust and wonder that led Sigmund Freud to develop his theory of the psychosexual stages of development.

It’s time for a test drive. I pop a squat onto the seat and urine flows down the lid, through a hole, diverted to the soil where plants act as a biofilter. To make a contribution of the solid sort, you raise the lid. After you excrete, it falls into the sawdust, and you pump a foot pedal on the left side that turns an auger down below — a plastic spiral connected to the freewheel of a bike. Then you press a lever that throws a shower of fresh sawdust.

In the dim recesses below, I glimpse a lump of what might be someone else’s excrement, but I don’t linger. Back outside, I chat with Raquel Alvarez, whose toilet I borrowed. Before its installation last year, her family had to relieve themselves into plastic bags, knot them off, and toss the bagged waste onto the hill – a flying toilet of sorts. She hated going at night, in the dark, and leaving her two girls alone in their weathered wooden house on stilts. She doesn’t mind moving the barrels of compost. “It doesn’t smell bad. I wasn’t grossed out,” says the 27-year-old, who likes the privacy and convenience of the compost toilet.

Her toilet has become a local attraction. Every day after school, her daughter’s friends use it – a curiosity shared around the world. According to research conducted in rural Zinder, Niger, a third of pit latrine owners surveyed shared it with their neighbors, too.

After getting past cost and cultural concerns, what may drive consumers to adopt such toilets is not only a matter of sanitation, but aspiration. As Argüello puts it, “They want a bathroom they can show visitors.”

Vanessa Hua reported from Ecuador on an International Reporting Project fellowship. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker online, Salon, San Francisco, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Newsweek, among other publications.

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