Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

The (waste) paper trail

Wastewater treatment plants could soon be turning used toilet paper into a renewable form of energy Wastewater treatment plants could soon be turning used toilet paper into a renewable form of energy Gameanna / Shutterstock
19 Nov
2017
Could human waste one day be fuelling our homes and businesses?

The average person in Western Europe produces between ten to 14kg of waste toilet paper annually. Currently the primary destination for this sewage will be local wastewater treatment plants, which are simply paid to filter and disinfect it until it reaches a state where it can be safely disposed of in landfills. However, innovative plans by researchers at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) are underway to develop mechanisms that are capable of building a ‘circular economy’ around waste toilet paper, by turning it into a source of renewable energy.

‘A lot of people don’t want to think about waste toilet paper; most people actually don’t care what happens to sewage after it leaves their house,’ says Dr Gadi Rothenberg, professor at the Van ’t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences at UvA. ‘But you can view it as a resource. It has a negative cost, that’s why I like it so much.’

Toilet paper that has been treated and separated from the rest of the sewage is rich in cellulose, as much as 80 per cent, which is capable of releasing energy just like wood or other forms of biomass. Rothenberg, along with colleague Els van der Roest, has developed a technique, funded by Sustainable Chemistry (a research priority area at UvA), whereby the waste cellulose becomes gasified before being converted directly into electricity in a solid-oxide fuel cell, at a cost comparable to current solar installations.

While acknowledging that the relatively low levels of waste toilet paper currently generated by the world’s cities means this technology is unlikely to ever become more than a niche source of renewable electricity (the researchers estimate that the volume of waste toilet paper produced annually in the Amsterdam region, for example, could power 6,400 homes), Rothenberg argues that as well as being economically profitable and reducing the need for landfills, one of the major benefits could be psychological. ‘It makes people think,’ he says. ‘If we want to be a sustainable society, we should actually not throw anything away. Nature does not throw anything away; nature works in cycles. Everything is being reused.’

This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    The air that we breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

Exciting news for wildlife and photography enthusiasts alike – the…

Wildlife

A new system of robotic aerial vehicles is revolutionising the…

Wildlife

Technology used in creating safe urban environments is now being…

Climate

Brazil’s shift to the right of the political spectrum could…

Wildlife

Laura Cole travels to Orkney to find out why numbers…

Wildlife

The unprecedented frequency of winter tick epidemics have resulted in…

Oceans

Ocean debris, mostly composed of plastic, reaches remote Atlantic islands…

Geophoto

With motion detectors becoming ever more sophisticated, and clearer, crisper…

Nature

Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of…

Tectonics

The reason for the unusual location of Mount St Helens…

Climate

Most plants thicken their leaves in response to higher carbon…

Climate

Not just the preserve of flatulent cows, methane is causing…

Climate

As the United States’ Supreme Court delays a landmark climate…

Geophoto

Of Britain's 15 national parks, the New Forest is probably…

Energy

The Treasury has announced that it is considering imposing a…

Tectonics

Major earthquakes are triggering seismic activity half the world away

Climate

Marco Magrini finds that a warming world also means a…

Wildlife

Unchecked tourism is potentially reducing the number of cheetah cubs that…

Oceans

A relocated military base in Okinawa, Japan will cause ‘irreversible’…

Climate

The ongoing recovery of the planet’s ozone layer is being…