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 and Save!

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

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...

Geophoto

Mountains provide a dramatic sight at the best of times,…

Wildlife

A surge in reports of dead hares has resulted in…

Oceans

Four scientists have banded together to make the case against the farming of octopuses, arguing…

Climate

As planetary oil consumption hits the 100-million-barrel mark Marco Magrini…

Oceans

A ship that ran aground early in February has been…

Wildlife

Two whale populations on either side of the African continent…

Geophoto

March traditionally heralds the beginning of spring, a time of…

Wildlife

An innovative project to utilise Laos’ elephant experts in service…

Polar

Despite common belief that Antarctica is vastly uninhabited, humans are…

Wildlife

Javan rhinos survived the recent Krakatoa tsunami, but the species…

Energy

As the world turns away from fossil fuels, one question…

Geophoto

The winners of the Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2018…

Climate

New legislation in Florida aims to solve various environmental issues,…

Polar

The world’s magnetic model is getting an early update, as…

Climate

Marco Magrini looks at the financial pressures spilling out into the…

Geophoto

Few sights are more dramatic than a star-filled sky at…

Polar

A region of Antarctica previously known for relative stability is…

Tectonics

Everything we thought we knew about eruptions could be wrong

Oceans

Sea levels are rising across the globe, but along the…

Polar

Seismometers buried in the Ross Ice Shelf have revealed that…