School of Engineering


UKZN’s Pollution Research Group has a Key Role in Quest for Safe Sanitation

UKZN’s Pollution Research Group has a Key Role in Quest for Safe Sanitation

The need for the acceleration of the commercialisation and adoption of innovative, non-sewered sanitation approaches was emphasised at the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing.

Head of the Pollution Research Group (PRG) at UKZN Professor Chris Buckley, and his deputy, Ms Susan Mercer, attended the expo.

The challenge laid out by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) was to devise ways to process waste locally in a programme known as: Reinvent the Toilet.

The eThekwini Municipality was selected as the site for the testing of several reinvented toilet prototypes based on its standing as a good locale for the research as it is a fast-growing urban environment where many residents lack access to proper sanitation, and because it has a reputation for innovation in the supply of water and sanitation services.

Prototypes being tested include those that do not require connection to water, electricity and the city’s sewer system, while all the prototypes include a mechanism to remove pathogens from the waste.

It is becoming increasingly important to find more sustainable solutions than wasteful flush systems because more than half the world’s population use sanitation facilities and services that are not safely managed and where waste is not contained, transported, or treated in a way that safely inhibits harmful pathogens. These include off-grid toilets and human waste treatment systems, using technology including the reinvented toilet and the omni-processor. These technologies will not just help the under-resourced, but will make life flexible, safe and convenient for all city-dwellers.

The sanitation sector also has the potential to create products, jobs and services through the reinvented toilet.

The reinvented toilet prototypes are being evaluated for their suitability for various communities with specific needs.

The PRG’s positioning in Durban and its history of agreements and engagements with the eThekwini Municipality’s Water and Sanitation (EWS) unit and the Water Research Commission (WRC) have laid the groundwork to enable this programme to take place in the city.

The PRG team comprises six academic staff members, 13 technical employees operating laboratories and working on prototypes and platforms, five support staff, 21 associated staff members, three post-doctorate students, 10 PhD candidates, 16 masters students and more than 50 alumni who have achieved their postgraduate qualifications through the group.

The work of the PRG is characterised by partnerships, not just with the BMGF, EWS and WRC, but also with organisations such as the Bremen Overseas Research and Development AssociationIHE-DelftUmgeni WaterETH ZürichBiocycleEawagPartners in DevelopmentKhanyisa Projects and the Asian Institute of Technology. Other university partners include Cranfield UniversityDuke University, the Florida, the University of West England, Caltech, Swansea University, Ohklahoma State University, Imperial College (London) and the University of North Carolina in the United States.

The PRG also works with disciplines at UKZN including Engineering, Development Studies, Geography, Microbiology, Life Sciences, Public Health, and Soil Science. This transdisciplinary approach enables the PRG to engage in robust and encompassing research that approaches sanitation with a holistic perspective to tackle far-reaching, interconnected and challenges linked to poor sanitation, including poverty, ill health, pollution, social issues and food insecurity.

The PRG conducts research at four key field sites:

  • The Newlands-Mashu research site in Newlands East in Durban includes the evaluation of a Decentralised Wastewater Treatment System (DEWATS); the operation of two nutrient recovery reactors evaluated as part of the VUNA project to recover nitrogen and phosphorus from collected urine, and incorporate these nutrients into usable fertilisers, and the running of test models of urine diversion dehydration toilets
  • Research at the Isipingo Wastewater Treatment Works involves a Black Soldier Fly (BSF) processing plant commissioned by a consortium of partners including the BMGF. The non-pest BSF species consumes organic waste and manures and can be processed for poultry and fish food or use in biofuel production
  • At the Amanzimtoti Wastewater Treatment Works in Isipingo, the PRG conducts collaborative research on the co-digestion of industrial effluents with sewage sludge
  • At the Tongaat Wastewater Treatment Works, the Latrine Dehydration and Pasteurisation (LaDePa) machine processes sludge from Ventilated Improved Pit Latrines (VIPs) to produce pellets that are a sustainable, nutrient-rich soil conditioner. The PRG provides research support for this process

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Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph supplied by Susan Mercer