Circular sanitation economy: Equipping communities to be climate-resilient

Co-authored by WASTE advisers to FINISH Mondial: Priska Prasetya, Sumeet Pawar and Lauren Pope

Since its inception, the FINISH programme has aimed to be an inclusive and sustainable approach to sanitation and health. FINISH started in India in 2009, with the aim of building a local system to deliver sanitation services at a large scale. It has since facilitated the construction of over 1 million toilets. Our work ensures that: people are aware of the need for a safe and durable toilet, people want to buy one, it is built and safely managed by local people and furthermore, is affordable. 

FINISH has expanded in geography, approach and scale. With scale comes environmental challenges (e.g potential to pollute groundwater) and opportunities (e.g. potential to circulate nutrients and carbon businesswise). The scale and increased local capacity addresses the sanitation value chain and has become part-and-parcel to the growing FINISH Mondial (FM) programme.  

 With a multi-stakeholder, multi-pronged approach, FM has been designed to take beneficiaries in all 6 programme countries (India, Kenya, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia) up the sanitation ladder by 2025.  

Figure 1 Waste workers or ‘honey suckers’ in the Nilgiris, India, disposing the safely managed waste for treatment and processing for its potential reuse. Source: WASTE, SWFF project (2019).

FINISH Mondial is looking at the circular economy of sanitation as a key pillar for a holistic approach to healthier and economically empowered communities. FM’s Faecal Sludge Management-Circular Economy (FSM-CE) Working Group (WG) was established to provide support to programme partners in their efforts to motivate and establish faecal sludge management (FSM) systems. The WG is comprised of the partnership’s key FSM and solid waste management experts who provide knowledge sharing and support that enables FSM activities in the country programmes to begin, accelerate and mature. Information for scaling and replication is shared amongst the country teams for a range of robust, adaptable, low-tech (and thereby, accessible) FSM solutions to contribute to inclusive and green growth for strengthening local circular economies in sanitation. 

What is the circular economy? 

In 2014, the World Economic Forum published a report ‘Towards the Circular Economy: Accelerating the scale-up across global supply chains’ highlighting emerging convergence of global trends and economic analysis of global consumption, which indicated a vital need to rethink how, “we use materials in our linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy” (WEF Report, 2014).  

Figure 2 Source: Metabolic

Decades of wasteful, linear consumption has been especially detrimental on communities in the Global South who have been pressured to fill every last available corner with not only their own waste, but also that imported from the biggest waste producers, the ‘Global North’. Innovators in the field are wrapping their heads around how to: a) make better use out of the earth’s finite resources and b) keep resources active in the supply chain for longer. This shift can be felt in daily life with such initiatives as banning grocery store plastic bags or ‘single-use plastics’ as well as Styrofoam in many places.  

 Circular economy innovators are aiming to redefine growth and the way we consume, focusing on positive society-wide and environmental benefits. This means, ‘decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system…underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources” (Ellen Macarthur Foundation). The circular economy model fits squarely in FINISH Mondial’s mission to create sustainable change which empowers [under-served] communities and businesses to scale sanitation.  


Linking Sanitation and Agriculture 

FM facilitates access to improved, safely managed sanitation facilities at the household level. This means that sanitation facilities (toilets) safely manage excreta so that it is not harmful to the community nor environment. Safely managed faecal sludge requires that the facilities (i) collects, (ii) stores and (iii) is accessible for the excreta to be removed therefore, the toilet is reusable. The entire sanitation service and value chain is considered from containment to collection to treatment and reuse. FM teams have identified an opportunity to link sanitation with the agriculture sector, thanks to the success of WASTE’s sister project, Securing Water for Food (SWFF), in India. Local partners, RDO Trust and FINISH Society (amongst others), worked for the last four years to realise a successful circular economy of sanitation and solid waste management 

Figure 3 Steps in the circular sanitation economy model

As proven under the sister SWFF project, it is evident that there is plentiful opportunity out of this overly abundant natural resource that we have considered ‘waste’ for so long. In India, the collected waste is being turned into organic co-compost which is having remarkable cross-cutting impacts on the people (communities), planet (environment and crops) and profits (entrepreneurs and improved livelihoods throughout the supply chain). The value proposition is to produce a nitrogen-rich compost made from faecal sludge and solid waste to be used as soil improver for vegetables farmers in the Nilgiris. With the application of co-compost, we promote the sanitation-water-agriculture nexus and advance integrated soil fertility management and climatesmart agriculture practices. The co-compost is produced at government-owned Resource Recovery Parks operated by women Self-Help Groups (waste workers) locally. 

People: No more ‘ick’ factor 

Attitudes are shifting: waste is seen as a valuable resource, not a hindrance or even taboo to discuss or handle. Indian communities affected by the innovations are letting go of the ‘ick’ factor regarding consuming produce grown in waste and are even becoming energised to increasingly implement local household composting initiatives for their own benefits. Household composting is low-tech and an effective way to relieve daily loads at municipal waste sites as well as nourish kitchen gardens directly. Waste workers have also reported to not mind its integration in the composting process. 


Planet: Equipping FINISH communities with climate-resilient innovations 

Application of organic fertiliser (co-compost) in lieu of chemical fertiliser has been found to have far-reaching impacts on how communities are dealing with climate change. The greatest extent to which, is still somewhat unknown however, our circular economy innovations are demonstrating noticeable differences in both climate mitigation and adaptation. 

 Climate change mitigation measures that can be realised via FINISH Mondial’s circular economy initiatives by:  

  1. Co-compost application as carbon sequestration in soil: meaning carbon is added back into the soil and is stored for a longer time, instead of being released to the atmosphere, increase water infiltration and storage; and
  2. Co-compost application as an alternative to chemical fertiliser: use of co-compost instead of energy-intensive chemical fertiliser for agriculture saves carbon dioxide (CO2 
  3. Co-compost application minimise greenhouse gas emissions: major benefit with respect to global climate change comes from avoiding production of methane originated from illegal landfills. 

Figure 4 Visibly noticeable soil improvements from organic inputs. Source: WASTE, SWFF project (2019).

Simultaneously, climate change adaptation measures are indicated by: 

    1. Co-compost application as a means to improve soil water holding capacityby increasing crop yield and survival, especially at times of drought; 
    2. Co-compost application as a means to improve soil structure, by increasing organic content. organic matter, soil building microorganisms (therefore biodiversity) and crop yield of soil; and 
    3. Prevention of faecal sludge and solid waste pollution to water bodies, by increasing quantity of clean water for irrigation.


Profit: Improving livelihoods for sanitation entrepreneurs and farmers 

When the entire life-cycle of waste is considered, sustainable sanitation and solid waste markets are created at the benefit of the entire community. Sanitation and solid waste entrepreneurs are developing skills in masonry and business which will stay with them longer after FINISH Mondial’s intervention.  

With the circular economy initiatives, FM is working to a) create more opportunities for sanitation and solid waste entrepreneurs, b) support municipalities in achieving clean environmentsc) improve livelihoods for waste workers and d) farmers.  

The business cases for various actors in the circular economy of sanitation and solid waste management for agriculture include:  

  1. Based on data from the Nilgiris, farmers benefit economically from improved yields and cost reductions for cultivation. After application of co-compost, one vegetable farmer in the Nilgiris managed to decrease his expenses, increase revenue and consequently improve his profit by 142%.
  2. Waste workers at the treatment sites benefit from improved working conditions and higher revenue from increased sales of products (compost, co-compost, recyclables and tipping fees) and the ability to operate more independently.
  3. Private faecal sludge collectors see economic benefits from having cost-effective manner to safely dispose faecal sludge. They also have a reduced risk of receiving fines from illegal discharge which is commonplace in areas lacking appropriate infrastructure.
  4. Municipalities benefit from the support of offering a clean and healthy environment to citizens and economically benefit from the cost-saving from making new landfills. 
    As solid waste gets managed more responsibly, solid waste loads are reduced. This reduces the need for governments to expand and/or make new landfills. 


Figure 5 Ketti Resource Recovery Park (India) is run by this women’s self-help group. Source: WASTE, SWFF project (2019).

Support for sanitation and solid waste entrepreneurs (waste workers) is a characteristic of the FINISH model  which utilises the Diamond Approach, addressing both the supply and demand sides of the sanitation and solid waste challenge. Furthermore, the circular economy model opens up more opportunities for new types of businesses to emerge. FM is building capacity of these entrepreneurs and working to formalise parts of the informal sector in areas which are often seen as a grey area. This is especially true for pit-emptiers, where often laws either do not match the reality of how toilets with pits must be emptied or do not protect the health and livelihoods of the people emptying these pits. Equitable and safe work for pit-emptiers a key overlooked link in the sanitation economy which we have identified as key for a holistic, sustainable and inclusive approach for strengthening sanitation and health overall. 

Waste workers often face harsh, unsafe conditions daily. FM is committed to building waste management structures which enforce a minimum [high] standard for workers including improvements such as protective gear, fair wages and hours, etc. Our teams are even working with municipalities to set regulations on input of medical waste which can carry pathogens harmful to workers who may unknowingly come into contact with it.  

Figure 6 Anita, a waste worker at Ketti Resource Recovery Park (India), who reported ‘not caring about handling faecal sludge in the co-composting process as it didn’t smell or feel different to any other waste’ a marker of successful taboo-busting. Source: WASTE, SWFF project (2019).

Farmers engaged in the programme have become ambassadors for co-compost usage. Farmers using organic fertiliser report higher earnings for crops based on improvements in visible markers like crop size, colour, stem health and weight. Furthermore, the innovation was quickly and viscerally felt. It took only one growing season for many of these farmers to notice differences in their yields.   

Expanding, where to next? 

FINISH Mondial is scaling up FSM-CE initiatives in agriculture from its humble beginnings in India. Since 2019, FM Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Bangladesh have all be working on plans to implement similar initiatives in Busia, Fort Portal, Mwanza and Faridpur, respectively.  

 With the dynamic collaboration of partners, FM is continuously innovating and advancing the sanitation-water-agriculture nexus by deepening knowledge on the integrated soil fertility management and climate smart agriculture practices with co-compost application for agriculture across the six countries. 

Figures 7 &8 SWFF Farmers report higher income from improved crop yields (India). Source: WASTE, SWFF project (2019).

Findings from the SWFF independent evaluation, in which some of FINISH Mondial’s expanding FSM-CE initiatives are founded upon, can be found in the report ‘Performance Evaluation: Circular economy model with black and greywater recycling in India, Aug. 2019’, accessible here. 



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