Leave it to third-world countries to invent new ways of recycling. In Rwanda, there is a prison near the Democratic Republic of the Congo that gets approximately one-half of their fuel for the prison by converting human feces into biofuel. Ironically, most of the prisoners at this prison are human rights violators (as are most of the prisoners in Rwanda as a whole). The overcrowded prison means that energy consumption is higher, and the amount of waste produced is greater as well.
Converting waste to biogas has improved three areas of the Rwandan prison situation. Firstly, it saves the Rwandan government nearly $1 million a year that it would have to spend on wood for fuel. Secondly, it has reduced the amount of waste being dumped into nearby Lake Kivu and other rivers. Thirdly, once the waste is processed, it serves as an odor-free fertilizer for the grounds.
The process of converting feces into usable methane gas starts out with a foul odor, but by the end, is odor-free. The program has been so successful that there are now biogas facilities in nearly half of the thirty prisons in Rwanda, and they produce nearly half the necessary electricity to power the prisons.
The facilities resemble giant beehives, and is used widely throughout the world. The process is self-sustaining:
The process requires putting a given amount of human or other animal waste into a “digester,” which ferments it using bacteria to release methane gas that can be captured and then burned as fuel. Attached is a “compensating chamber” that replenishes the supply of bacteria to keep the operation self-sustaining.
In four weeks, 100 cubic meters of waste can be converted into 50 cubic meters of fuel, which is used to make electricity and is even used as cooking fuel. The prisoners apparently aren’t deterred by using their own waste to cook with: they see that it works, and so they want to use it.
Rwanda isn’t the only country using waste as fuel: some Nepalese have begun to use it in their homes, and the Swedes use it to power trains. Rwanda is, however, probably the most unique country to use biogas. There’s something poetic about human rights violators using their own waste as a means to create electricity and cook. Now if only such a system would be put into place in the United States. Alas, most first-world countries have other, too well-established means of producing power, and their citizenry would have a collective heart attack if human waste was used as a means of cooking food for human consumption. Third world countries, on the other hand, have no such inhibitions, and it should come as no surprise, then, that they would come up with a way to solve waste problems in an innovative, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective manner.
If you’re curious, you can find instructions on how to build your own biogas plant here.