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China is Turning Fecal Sludge Into Black


byNatasha Khan-February 1, 2015

(Bloomberg) Heinz-Peter Mang is obsessed with turning human waste into gold. As
millions of Chinese move to cities, the German engineer is convinced the country is on
the way to hitting the jackpot.
A growing portion of Chinas toilet waste is converted into fertilizer and biogas. In
Beijing, 6,800 tons of human excrement are treated each day by some estimates:
enough to fill almost three Olympic-size swimming pools.

Over the past decade, Chinas economic ascent has driven millions of rural workers
into its cities in the largest migration in human history. In 2013, the number of urban
dwellers crossed 731 million, overtaking the rural population by more than 100
million. Some fallouts: water shortages in the North and toilet waste routed into rivers
in the south.
Thats forcing city planners to get creative in dealing with toilet refuse, and drawing
engineers like Mang to help refine models. The push to re-purpose feces into energy
resources or fertilizer is expanding across China, and Mang is advocating for the model
to be copied in other parts of the world.
The world has much to learn from China in the way its harnessed waste for energy,
said Mang, 57, who now works with graduate students on ecological sanitation projects
at the University of Science and Technology Beijing. With the lack of taboo around
reusing fecal matter, its all about the science for safe reuse, and with more and more
people moving into cities theres an unprecedented opportunity.

Sludge Recycling
Globally, a variety of techniques are used to handle human waste: some cities dump it
in rivers, others choose to incinerate, and still others bury it in ditches. United Utilities
Group Plc, Britains largest publicly traded water company, handles the sewage of 1.2
million people in Manchester and operates a sludge recycling center that runs on
enough human waste to power 25,000 homes.
While other parts of the world also harness fecal sludge into resources, and human
beings have for centuries found ways to re-purpose their waste, Chinas opportunity to
do so is unmatched as the nations cities become more crammed.

Loop Closing
Mangs life and work has centered around China, and offers a window into the
countrys evolution on managing waste. He first arrived in Chengdu, China, in 1982 as
part of a German government delegation, collaborating with China on a biogas project.
He was hooked from the start. The willingness of the Chinese to try different ways to
use waste sustainably was amazing to Mang, then a newly graduated environmental

engineer who authored a masters thesis on sustainable uses of sewage sludge.

Through the 80s, he worked in Africa, preaching the Chinese way of waste
conservation. In the 1990s, he worked in Cuba, using Chinese models to help Cuba set
up a system to funnel pig manure into growing porcine food on farms after the
Russians cut off exports of pig feed.
Meanwhile, the worlds most populous nation scaled up a model used in farms.
Originally used to keep humans from doing their business in pig troughs, today 40
million farm homes across China have a holding tank for human and animal waste that
is partly sanitized by depriving the solids of oxygen. Whats left is then converted to
liquid fertilizer for the farms.
Whats happening in Beijing is an industrialized, scaled-up version of that model, said
Mang, who has lived in the capital for a decade. Across the city, which has seen its
population double to 21 million in the past decade, the average annual amount of
human waste processed will increase by 200 to 300 tons a day, said Zhang Jiang,
general manager of Beijing Century Green Environmental Engineering & Technology
Ltd., which operates night-soil treatment plants. Treating waste is set to be a growing
area of business, Zhang said.

Overwhelming Odor
Other parts of the world are also making an effort to harness energy from fecal sludge.
In recent years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested $1.5 million in a project
to explore biodiesel production from human waste in Ghana. Its also investing in
family-level biogas units or septic tanks that process human waste in Thailand and
On a recent Wednesday, Mang took a group of visiting sanitation researchers and
students to visit some of Beijings private plants. Processing at one named Sijiqing
or four seasons green begins on the ground floor of a two-story, red-tiled building.
The odor of human excrement in the air gives away its true purpose: some 200 trucks
unload 800 tons of fecal sludge every day.

Compost Wing
A bright yellow truck parked inside channels the human waste through a pipe into a
machine, where unrecyclable solid material like tissue paper and plastic bags is

separated, explained Zhang Hui, the plants manager.

The rest then goes for separation: the solid waste is propelled into a compost wing to
ferment at 60 degrees Celsius for 10 days. The process kills harmful bacteria and
ascaris eggs parasitic roundworms that infect humans and turns the excrement
into rich fertilizers for trees and vegetables. The liquid material is routed into tanks to
generate biogas, and eventually pumped to bigger water-treatment plants. Phone calls
to the Beijing mayors office and the city commission in charge of environmental
sanitation management werent answered.

Infection Barrier
Born into a fruit-farming family near Frankfurt, Mangs father earned additional
income as a truck driver, often transporting manure and straw. As a baby, Mangs
mother would leave him on top of manure heaps wrapped in a blanket as it was
always soft and warm. He reckons thats one reason hes never been squeamish about
fecal matter.
Today, he works with government officials, academics, health planners and
universities. As a guest professor at the sustainable environmental sanitation
department of the university in Beijing, he spends his time working with students to
answer questions around waste that are getting more crucial as cities fill up.
Among other initiatives, he now provides technical assistance for biogas training to
municipal governments as part of the U.S. governments Global Methane Initiative. He
also consults on economic projects related to biogas in the country.
A central part of his lifes work has been looking at how to keep the waste-recycling
process hygienic, a top concern of the Chinese government from the beginning. While
China is far ahead of other developing countries in terms of urban wastewater
collection systems, its treatment rate is not as advanced.
So the user doesnt come into direct contact when expelling their excrement, Mang
said. But where does it go after? From that sense, we will need to find safer pathways
of disposal and reuse.

Poo Power
The catch-up of waste treatment from low penetration rates in China is driving a

waste revolution, with key treatment operators likely to grow 200 to 400 percent in
volume in the next five years, Credit Suisse said in an Oct. 6 note on Chinas
environment sector. The analysts didnt specifically mention the toilet-waste industry.
Only part of Beijings waste is converted into resources. Other portions are routed to
treatment plants or dumped in bodies of water or directly into landfills.

Toilet Lights
New migrants to cities are one challenge to mass implementation of Chinas policies,
with many still seeing the toilet as a trash can and dumping everything from batteries
to newspapers in the bowl.
Also, because Chinese often cook with fresh ingredients, the overall mix of waste tends
to be wetter than in Europe, Mang said. Its very humid so it needs too much energy
to incinerate, thats why you cant copy the European model, he says with a hearty
Then there is the challenge of missed opportunities. For that, Mang is advocating for
better maintenance of light bulbs in public toilets.
People have to go at all hours of the night if you dont give them light, how can they
see where theyre going? he says, referring to excrement that sometimes piles up in
the mornings in public restrooms. Thats a lot of wasted waste.
To contact the reporter on this story: Natasha Khan in Hong Kong
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brian Bremner; Anjali Cordeiro Anjali
Cordeiro, Randall Hackley
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