Zerodors: IITian Uttam Banerjee's Ekam Eco Solutions to take waterless toilets to national scale
8 Jun, 2014, 0837 hrs IST
By: Jyoti Pande Lavakare Last week, I entered a men's urinal for the first time, in the mostly male bastion of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-D), expecting the worst. I was escorted by an innovator who has a master's in industrial design from the same institute. Uttam Banerjee's start-up Ekam Eco Solutions is trying to find solutions for one of India's biggest problems — sanitation and organic waste management — and he has begun by installing low-cost, waterless urinals in his immediate surroundings. The urinal he showed me was just off a crowded hallway that led to classrooms at one end and a cafeteria at the other — an area with obviously high footfalls — and one of the 600 that IIT-D has paid to have retrofitted with Zerodor, the waterless urinal technology created and patented by one of its own some years ago.
Ekam is now trying to take this innovation to the market, and has already made headway with an impressive client list ranging from the Indian defence services to private companies. The tiny room marked "gents" at the IIT campus could have smelt like a gas chamber, but it was odour-free, barely even smelling like a toilet. Before Zerodors were installed in these urinals, Banerjee tells me, the entire area right up to the cafeteria smelt worse than an Indian Railways second class compartment toilet. But today, even at 9 am, a time when the campus was buzzing with activity, classes, meetings, the cafe was thriving, without any malodorous smells to drive away customers. Ecological Sanitation More importantly, Banerjee told me that the installation of one such urinal pays for itself in water savings within just one month; even earlier, if you take into account costs associated with water usage — electricity to pump that water, plumbing, maintenance, effluent treatment, among others. According to him, IIT-D saves 200 litres of water a day per urinal with each installation — that's around 120,000 litres a day. At present, only the IITs in Delhi, Kanpur and Gandhinagar have bought into this innovation, although the Indian armed forces is very interested and has installed Zerodor urinals at some locations. "Male urinals consume on average, 8,333 litres of potable water in a month. Waterless urinals result in saving anything between 50,000 and 151,000 litres of water per urinal per year," Banerjee says. "We are working on the whole sanitation aspect of these. The dry operations of waterless urinals and touch-free operations reduce the spread of communicable diseases," says Banerjee. "People assume that water is needed to flush urine, but it isn't. In fact, when it comes into contact with water, urine releases ammonia, which is what causes the odour. But with our technology and Zerodor kit, we can completely do away with flushing and get rid of all odour." In fact, the Indian Railways, army and air force are also trying out Zerodor. But it is the Indian Navy that is most interested, because it needs a solution that will recycle waste productively. It isn't just saving water and related costs that this littleproduct hopes to achieve. It focuses on the whole concept of ecological sanitation, which includes harvesting urine as a resource to extract nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from it, which can be used for farming. Beginning with waterless urinals, the company hopes to innovate source-separation toilets and nutrientrecovery reactors. "We are in the exploration and research phase to finalize zero-discharge toilet technology for ships and submarines at present," says Banerjee. "In fact, urine contains phosphorus, which we can extract. Phosphorus has many applications and is imported," he adds. Instead of importing phosphorus, India can harvest it from human, or later even animal, urine. Cost Factor Towards this goal, the Ekam team is in the process of developing the prototype of a phosphate-recovery reactor that can harvest nutrients from urine. With such a device, urine can be used for drip irrigation, called fertigation, by installing separate pipes from toilets to fields. "We are trying to harvest nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus from human waste and put it to productive use for agricultural and industrial production. If you instal a separate line for urine from the toilets to the fields and drip irrigate 5-6 inches below the soil, there will be no odour," Banerjee explains. He has set up a prototype of such a urinal kiosk at the National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad, at a cost of Rs 1.5 lakh. Significantly one of their clients is Jain Irrigation, a BSE- and NSElisted public limited company with revenues of $850 million. The best part about the Zerodor solution is that it uses no chemicals, sealants or gels and is low cost and low maintenance — and can be retrofitted in existing urinals. This makes Zerodor superior to its competitors. Installation of Zerodor urinals, according to Banerjee, costs anywhere between Rs 2,500 and Rs 3,500 depending on whether they are being freshly installed or retrofitted in existing urinals. Installing new Zerodor urinals has an additional advantage of saving on plumbing costs. If Banerjee reaches his ambitious goal of fitting 1 lakh units by end-2014, and continues at that pace, perhaps one day the ubiquitous smell of urine in public spaces in India will become a distant memory. (The author is an independent columnist and writer)