A crapload of fecal firsts.
Each and every gut microbiome test that we run at uBiome begins with a poop sample.
We’re not greedy, though. As we like to say, we only need a mere smear.
There are, however, other ways of using human waste that are far more demanding and, dare we say it, far odder.
Consider, for example, the case of the Italian avant-garde artist Piero Manzoni who, in 1961, produced 90 cans, which he said were filled with his own excrement.
Entitled, in Italian, Merda d’artista — which translates to Artist’s Sh!t — each numbered can supposedly contains 1.1 ounces of Manzoni’s poop.
One is in the Tate Collection in London, where the catalogue helpfully lists its medium as: “tin can, printed paper, and excrement.”
In October 2015, can #24 was sold at Christie’s in London for a cool $230,000.
A sum, as the British might say, not to be sniffed at, in more ways than one.
Around the world, others are making money from human poop in all manner of ways.
In rural Bolivia, for example, feces-related business practices are being used to solve the very urgent problem of the poor having no access to toilets.
(And it’s not just in Bolivia. An estimated 1.7 billion of the world’s poorest people use pit latrines every day.)
Fewer than half of rural Bolivians have regular access to toilets and, perhaps because they’re simply not used to them, they are also disinclined to use a bathroom even when they do have one nearby.
It’s therefore common for people to defecate on open ground.
This has led an organisation called Water for People to experiment with a financially-incentivised way to encourage the use of composting latrines.
They’re spreading the human compost on land planted with Monterey pine saplings, then, in the habitat provided by the pine trees, cultivating expensive ‘bolete’ mushrooms, which are sold to generate income for local communities.
Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are tackling the disposal of human waste in another ingenious way.
Knowing that the larvae of Black Soldier flies thrive in human feces, the scientists are experimenting with the cultivation of these insects, whose bodies can be processed then turned into nutritious food for farm animals and fish once they’ve matured.
An early prototype used an ingenious field latrine that lured in the flies but then prevented their escape. Tests are underway in South Africa.
We learned about the project from an excellent online resource, “Engineering for Change,” from which we were also reminded of the Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge,” which has led to some visionary proposals.
In 2012, the Foundation brought together toilet inventors from around the world, one outcome of which was a social enterprise, named Toilets for People, that helps individuals in developing countries build basic latrines using local materials at a cost of around $150 per unit.
They’ve named their latrine the Compact Rotating Aerobic Pollution-Preventing Excreta Reducer.
C.R.A.P.P.E.R. for short.
In the developed world, sewage treatment plants have long turned their raw material into compost, and even energy.
For example, the vast Mogden Sewage Works in West London was opened in the 1930s, and in its first year of operation was already treating around 70 million gallons of raw sewage every day.
Mogden was one of the earliest plants to generate electricity using methane, of which it had a massive amount.
A 1970s report claimed that around 480 cubic feet of gas a year came from the personal contributions of each of the 1.5 million citizens that the plant served.
In addition, around 1,100 tons of sludge a year were converted into a powerful garden fertiliser branded “Morganic,” which was sold back to the same public who’d, uh, donated it.
However, if the Mogden management thought they were ahead of the curve in the 1930s, they were mistaken.
In fact, the Assyrians allegedly used biogas obtained from human excrement to heat their bathwater in the 10th century BCE.
Rumors that flatulent bathers can achieve the same kind of result by striking a match as they pass wind underwater should almost certainly be disbelieved.
Those Brits do seem to have a thing about making use of the stuff humans usually leave behind.
In 2010, the UK company GENeco converted a VW Beetle to run on biogas produced entirely from human waste.
Dubbed the Bio Bug, newspapers of the time excitedly reported that “excrement flushed down the lavatories of just 70 homes was enough to power the car for 10,000 miles.”
Actually, as well as being highly economical, the convertible Beetle was no slouch in the performance department either, being capable of a nifty top speed of 114 miles an hour, enabling its owner to drive like the wind, one might say.
Four years later, those good old Brits (rhymes with… well, you know) decided to up the ante, launching what they called a “poo bus,” a 40-seater vehicle powered entirely by human and food waste.
The bus can travel 186 miles on one tank of gas, which can apparently be produced by recycling the waste of just five people.
In the Bristol area where the bus operates, the local sewage treatment plant produces an nose-expanding 17 million cubic metres of biomethane a year, in a process known as anaerobic digestion – enough to power 8,300 homes.
Elsewhere, others are turning human waste into fuel, and even floor tiles – the latter evolving from 2005 research in Taiwan.
It seems you can do a great deal with poop, and – as we well know – also learn a lot when you analyse it.