Query from Science reporter: the psychology of waste and ecosan

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  • Elisabeth
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Query from Science reporter: the psychology of waste and ecosan

Dear all,

Yesterday I received a query from Greg Miller who is from Science (magazine) and based in San Francisco. He has asked me some very pertinent questions, and has allowed me to copy them here.
I am wondering if there are any people in this group who want to put forward some answers, opinions and particular stories on this subject? (stories are always very good for such articles)

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Dear Dr. von Muench,

I'm a reporter at Science. We have a special issue coming up on
"waste," and I'm working on an article about the psychology of waste.
More specifically, I'm looking for examples of situations where
psychological or cultural factors are an obstacle to adopting waste
management strategies with environmental, economic, and/or health
benefits. Ecological sanitation seems like an area where this would be
a
factor, and I'm writing to see if you (or someone else at SuSanA?)
would
be willing to talk with me about your experience with these issues.

These are my questions:
1) What are the most common psychological barriers to getting people to adopt ecological sanitation systems? Can you think of a specific case that illustrates this?

2) Do the barriers vary from place to place? Are some cultures more amenable to ecosan than others?

3) What are the most effective strategies for overcoming these obstacles? Again, do you have a story of a specific case where the psychological barriers were overcome?

4) Do you have any stories about other approaches that were not effective?

5) It seems like Germany and Sweden are leading the way in this area.
Are there cultural reasons why this is so?

+++++++++++++++++

He may or may not end up using any information posted here (he hasn't got much time left to finalise his article and space limitation will also be here), but in any case it will be interesting to see what people have to say about this topic! What taboos have you come across in your work and how have you overcome them?

My point would be that in societies where there is a need for fertiliser and for keeping the soil fertility high (best example: China), there are much fewer taboos around excreta recycling than in nomadic societies where there is no need for fertilisers. Do you agree?

Regards,
Elisabeth
Dr. Elisabeth von Muench
Independent consultant located in Ulm, Germany
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  • Marijn Zandee
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Re: Query from Science reporter: the psychology of waste and ecosan

I can at least provide some opinions,

I think it is too easy to make the distinction between settled agricultural societies and nomadic ones with regard to the acceptance of Ecosan. For example India has had big cities and settled farmers for millennia and also knows big land fertility problems. However because of the tradition of manual scavenging society at large is quite faecal phobic.

I am getting more convinced that the reason people like flush, rather than dry toilets is not only that that is what is used in the developed world. I think there is a psychological factor that we regard water as clean and something that is flushed with water as cleansed. In south Asian traditions, where water is strongly seen as purifying, this intuition is even stronger.

One friend in Nepal once told me that part of why toilets in South Asia are often not very well cleaned is that they are considered "ritually unclean" anyway. The fact that toilets are perceived as "unclean" (in a ritual / psychological sense) makes that people do not see a point in cleaning those places. (I do not intend to say here that no-one in South Asia cleans their toilets :-)).

regards

Marijn
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  • emmanuel
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Re: Query from Science reporter: the psychology of waste and ecosan

Dear Elisabeth,

I can give you answers for a specific frensh point of view. I Studied a little bit the psycoligical factors that can be obstacle when I developp my toilet :
I can give you my opinion and you transmit what you think is interesting :
1- Water in a christian mind is directly link to purification. Toilet with water is clean and dry toilet is not.
The women in general say "how it can be clean if there is no water ?"

A majotity of people think that smell can transmit diseases. When I do a visit of the composting room of my toilet, some poeple put there shirt on there nose and mouth to see in the composting room even if we say that htere is no smell.

3- My experience is that if you let time to people to think about ecosan, they change there position slowly. In general, it takes 2 years to change and be OK to go in an ecosan action. And the more time they take to change, the more active they are after in ecosan actions.
In general people think the ecosan systems are worth than it is realy. When they see an existing implementation, they are suprised to see that it is nice.
One of my client took 1,5 year to came to visit my toilet. She accepted the week after the visit to by one toilet and put in her house. After 1 year she say that flush toilets are ugly and she can not use anymore.

5- In industrialise countries, we have time to think about ecology and we have the money to developp it.
In Sweeden and Germany, Ecosan is push by government.

Regards

Emmanuel Morin
Ecodomeo
Emanuel Morin
Ecodomeo - France
www.ecodomeo.com
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  • Florian
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Re: Query from Science reporter: the psychology of waste and ecosan

muench wrote: 3) What are the most effective strategies for overcoming these obstacles? Again, do you have a story of a specific case where the psychological barriers were overcome?


I have a little story on this one, I hope I still get it right: In Nepal, I visited some households that had constructed small biogas digesters, they recieved support from the highly successfull biogas support programme. Animal manure and effluent from pour-flush toilets is fed to these digesters. If households have a cow or two, this system generally produces enough gas for cooking, eliminating the need for firewood collection or buying propane gas bottles. I

Now it seems in Nepal, there is a cultural aversion, rooted in hindu believs, against using gaz produced from fecal matter for cooking. The people from the project told me that there were great concerns at the beginning if people would accept this. One old man owning such a digester explained that the plant has a lot of benefits for them, no more need to pay for gaz, and that using the gas produced from fecal matter isn't a problem, because it is purified by the flame of the burner. Fire has is purifing in hindu believies.

Now I am not sure if I got the religious things right, not being an expert in this, but the main message I got from this encounter is, that if technolgies and practices have a tangible benefit for people, then they are very quick to adapt their attitudes and come up with good reasons why it is ok to use them.


On a seperate note:

emmanuel wrote: The women in general say "how it can be clean if there is no water ?"

We have also admit here, that this is not just psychology, it is actually true that it's more easy and comfortable to clean a toilet when you can use plenty of water.

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  • Elisabeth
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Re: Query from Science reporter: the psychology of waste and ecosan

Dear all,
Thank you for your replies, I have found them very interesting!

@ Florian: Well, I have to partly or maybe even fully disagree with your last sentence in your posting above. I find it very easy to clean my dry toilet (Separett Villa) with a moist sponge - why would I want to throw down liters of water? - it is usually anyway the scrubbing action that gets things clean, not so much the flushing. The flushing is just to flush it away. Why else would you need to use the toilet brush almost each time you use have defecated into a flush toilet? It is actually something I really despise about flush toilets: having to use that filthy brush and also having to clean under the rim. I much prefer my dry toilet in that respect: there are no faeces stains because it falls straight down and doesn't touch the side (at least if you use it as intended). And I don't have to clean under some sort of rim which is slimy and where I can't see behind it.
But that's more of an aside, not directly related to the psychology aspect here. :-)

@ Marijn: you mention the case of India. There must be something special about India. I mean, how else could such a far-developed country (country in transition) still have so many open defecators. You mention the manual scavenger act. But I think this is not in itself a "taboo" issue, it is a law that is trying to help reduce inequalities amongst the "castes". I have never been to India but the number of photos and videos I have seen of people squatting and shitting in areas where they know that others can see them is quite astounding. I mean in many other cultures it would be so embarrassing to be seen by someone else while shitting! Is it pure necessity in Indian slums or is it also that people are a bit blazé about it and know that faeces can also be good (i.e. fertiliser)? In rural areas, they do know and utilise this knowledge.

Example photo to illustrate what I wrote:

File Attachment:

open defecation 2 by Sustainable sanitation , on Flickr

Lastly, I would like to hear more examples from Africa here, please?

One story that comes to mind, which I have read:
In some countries or cultures in Africa people don't like it when other people can have access to one's faeces for fear that they would take the faeces and then do some Vodoo magic on them and harm you in that way. Hence, a hole in the ground is much "safer" than an ecosan UDDT (urine-diverting dry toilet), where you just have to open the hatch and have easy access to the faeces... Maybe a way around it would be to use a strong padlock? Note sure.

Thanks in advance for sharing your stories and thoughts,

Elisabeth
Dr. Elisabeth von Muench
Independent consultant located in Ulm, Germany
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  • Marijn Zandee
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Re: Query from Science reporter: the psychology of waste and ecosan

Dear Elizabeth,

As far as India, my point was that to the best of my knowledge there is no tradition of night soil use in India (apart from some Himalayan / Hindu Kush regions). While the Ganges plane has known settlements and land fertility problems for a very long time. It was just an example that not all more settled civilizations have been using night soil. But maybe that is the exception to the rule?

I have been to India a couple of times now, it is indeed amazing to our minds that people will just squat down and relieve themselves next to the railway line while your train rolls past.
One other story that has been reported from India and I have heard also in Nepal is that going out to the defecation field with all the man or women (they go in separate groups) first ting in the morning is a bit of a social affair. And that people actually miss the social event of catching up on the latest village news while squatting in the field together once toilets are built.

Another thing we should not forget about India is that still about 30% of the population (roughly 350 million people) lives below their official poverty line of 28 Rs/day (0.44 Euro/day). And there are estimates that if you raise the poverty line by about 12 Rs/day (0.17 Euro/day) another 100 million+ people would classify as poor.

@ Florian, one social mobilizer in Nepal told me a similar story. In Hindu culture cow dung is viewed as cleansing. In a traditional Nepali house, the floors are clay and regularly cleaned with cow dung. For instance if a baby poops on the kitchen floor, the way to clean it is with cow dung. So the mixing of the human waste with the cow dung in the bio-gas dome is what purifies the gas.

Kind regards

Marijn
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  • canaday
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Re: Query from Science reporter: the psychology of waste and ecosan

Hi Elisabeth,

Sanitation is imminently cultural. I build UDDTs with a wide variety of cultures here Ecuador, ranging from the various native cultures to mixed-race Ecuadorians and foreign tourists.

It is very interesting to compare the acceptance among different indigenous cultures. We have had big success stories especially among the Achuar people here in Amazonian Ecuador, with two active programs going on now. I think this is due to various factors:

// The Achuar have a strong tradition of hygiene, which goes beyond our concept of microbes to include energies from other people.

// They have only had permanent contact with white people as of 1970, at which point they started to stop living in houses scattered out into the forest (with lots of relatively safe, private and hygienic space for depositing in the forest) to concentrate their houses to near the landing strips and schools. I think for decades they have been concerned about the resulting concentrated open defecation, for which they had no solution.

// They mostly live along small rivers, which everyone has contact with, via bathing, clothes washing, fishing and drinking.

// The Achuar are sufficiently proud of their own culture to not assume that Westerners have everything worked out and know exactly what they are doing (in this case, with their ubiquitous flush toilets).
(See james.photoshelter.com/gallery/The-Achuar/G0000DMXB8x3sR00 for beautiful photos of modern-day Achuar and a map of their territory,
and a BBC report on the Achuar
www.bbc.co.uk/amazon/sites/peruvianjungle/pages/content.shtml )

On another note, it is interesting to see the openness of Westerners to the use of toilets built for squatting, once the benefits of these are explained, despite having used sit-down toilets for essentially their whole lives. One time, I built sitting and squatting UDDTs, side by side, near the boat dock of a jungle lodge. The manager made a unilateral decision that none of the tourists would use the squatting toilet and did not order a door to be made for it ... and, despite not having a door, it received considerable use by the foreign tourists (and now it has a door).

Why have UDDTs been so well received in Sweden (and Scandinavia in general)? I think this is largely due to the hygiene and the civic-mindedness of the people there. One could mostly eat off the ground there and it is less acceptable to unload one's problems on the general public and require everyone's tax money to be spent on resolving these problesm. (This is my personal perception and no offense is intended to other cultures.)

Best wishes,
Chris Canaday
Conservation Biologist and EcoSan Promoter
Omaere Ethnobotanical Park
Puyo, Pastaza, Ecuador, South America
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  • Elmersayre
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Re: Query from Science reporter: the psychology of waste and ecosan

Hello All, my take on this thread....

1) What are the most common psychological barriers to getting people to adopt ecological sanitation systems? Can you think of a specific case that illustrates this?

a. Some people abhor seeing their fecal matter down below (in single vault ecosan toilets). They would rather want it flushed and forgotten.
b. They cannot think of human waste as fertilizer. Human waste is considered despicable and not useful. They will cringe to the idea of using it as fertilizer.
c. They think that human disease like TB and cancer and the like can be transmitted via fecal matter.
d. The smell, especially if management system is not well understood or not in place.


2) Do the barriers vary from place to place? Are some cultures more amenable to ecosan than others?

a. In the Philippines, Christians accepts the use of human waste in agriculture more than the Muslims. The Indigenous Peoples or tribal also accepts readily human waste use.


3) What are the most effective strategies for overcoming these obstacles? Again, do you have a story of a specific case where the psychological barriers were overcome?

a. Most effective is telling the local people that when they openly defecate and when flies steps on the fecal matter then go to their food, it is as if they are putting feces into their food. This is a very powerful illustration that puts people to their senses.
b. Another strategy to overcome the obstacles is local village regulation, eg. those without toilets will be fined or something to that effect.
Elmer Sayre
Water, Agroforestry, Nutrition and Development Fdn.
Libertad, Misamis Oriental
9021 Philippines
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  • bracken
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Re: Query from Science reporter: the psychology of waste and ecosan

Just having quickly looked through this thread (brought here by the SuSanA Forum digest by the way - a very useful service) and I had some thoughts regarding the initial question.

"What are the most common psychological barriers to getting people to adopt ecological sanitation systems?"

If we are considering the entire system then we'd have to say that there is the possibility of psychological barriers at at least 4 different points in the system and as such we can't just simply say what the common barriers are. We potentially have mutliple barriers (of the psychological variety).

There are the toilet users (who may or may not have problems with urine diversion, or dry toilets, or flushed UD toilets, or squatting, or sitting, or dark cabins, or toilets inside the house, or outside the house, with the idea of people collecting their faeces or whatever - and many of these "barriers" are fairly typical for any new sanitation device).

Then there are possibly the collectors - those who empty and / or collect and transport the material from on-site facilities. They themselves may have reservations regarding the work, or alternatively the public at large may view those involved in this work negatively, which could prevent this part of the system from working as desired.

Then there are those who would reuse the products and the multiple potential barriers they could have - such as handling the material, or its smell, or cultural issues, or fears regarding the marketability of their produce and so on.

Then we have the consumers of the products (who could potentially even be the users of the toilets in the first place). And of course here we have the whole range of perception issues and so on.

One could indeed spend years of research on each one of these topics and try and get into the reasoning behind each one of these barriers. And whilst I think they are of some importance for the correct functioning of the system, I think we tend to get far too hung up on this whole psychological barrier issue. I agree more with Florian's example from Nepal. People are nothing if not pragmatic. If something works and brings a tangible benefit to individuals then belief systems and behaviour prove to be flexible and societies make room for the innovation.

One general example that I can think of off the top of my head of how these psychological barriers can be flexible is the use of untreated wastewater to irrigate plants for market gardening in urban areas in many sub-saharan African countries. Now everybody knows that this is a dangerous practice for both the gardeners and the consumers and most people find the idea disgusting, but it does allow an increased garden production and keeps market prices lower for vegetables through the elimination of direct fertiliser costs. Nobody finds the idea appealing, but it does provide a pragmatic (if dangerous) approach to low-cost garden irrigation and fertilisation. If we were to simply consider the number of "psychological barriers" that should prevent irrigation with untreated wastewater we would not expect to find it practiced at all - and yet it is wide-spread. Because on a larger scale it works - affordable vegetables are produced and there is a market for them.

In summary then I'd say that the psychological barriers discussion is a bit of a distraction. Whilst not unimportant I think they are not generally decisive - if the system works and provides an improvement for all involved actors then it will be adopted. The tricky thing with ecosan systems is that there is a greater number of actors involved in the system and so a greater number of individual interests to be satisfied, and if any of these links are not satisfied then the whole system chain can collpase. Then, some clever people will point to the "psychological barriers" that weren't addresseed - when in fact for me the question is "why did the system not improve the situation for this particular group?"
Water and Sanitation Specialist
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