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START Center Identifies Technologies to Track Fecal Sludge

START Center Identifies Technologies to Track Fecal Sludge

This winter, the START team conducted a landscape analysis of sensor technologies for tracking and measuring fecal sludge for the Water, Hygiene, and Sanitation Team (WASH) at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Fecal sludge (a technical term for the slurry of human excreta that has many everyday names) management is an important part of safe provision of sanitation facilities. While incredible progress has been made in increasing access to improved sanitation in LMIC, many issues remain related to the safe storage, transport, and processing of fecal sludge. In order to design better systems to manage waste, data on quantities of fecal sludge being produced and where it goes after removal from septic tanks and latrines is needed. For this project, our team’s objective was to identify technologies to automate counting and tracking of vacuum trucks and other desludging vehicles, quantify the volume of fecal sludge being transported, and measure the solids content of sludge.

To accomplish these goals, we conducted a review of available technologies aided by 25 interviews with experts from academia, the waste management industry, governmental organizations, and NGOs. These interviews were an incredibly rich source of information about innovative technologies and their applications in a variety of settings.  We also conducted three site visits, enabling us to see many of the technologies we learned about in our research “in action.”

During our visit to the King County South Treatment Plant in Renton, the Washington State On-site Sewage Association (WOSSA) Conference in Tacoma, and University of Washington Power Plant on campus, we met many innovative and passionate individuals. The experts we spoke to at these sites were instrumental to our understanding of the promise and challenges of technologies and we were inspired by their ingenuity in the customization of several instruments for their own application.

As this was the first WASH project for a START team, we were energized to take on this new area of work.  Barbara Burke, a member of the team, noted, “Our team was comprised of global health, epidemiology, and anthropology students rather than engineers. I believe that this unique composition enabled us to apply a different lens to the work and resulted in offering a set of new approaches for the Foundation.” As an added bonus, we all learned more about local waste management processes in Seattle than we ever anticipated we would know in a lifetime!

Additional information about this project and the final deliverables may be found here.