‘Are you friggin’ kidding me?’
This was the usual response of friends and teachers to one of the main ideas I was considering for my thesis. And I cannot blame them either, because the concern was legit – shit was involved, literally. After many discussions, I finally told myself that additive manufacturing with human feces would be a project I must save for another lifetime. In retrospection though, I too agree that it would have been a bit too much – I saw myself, a year from then, clutching at whatever little that remains of my hair staring at a brutally hacked filament extruder which was either: a. unable to extrude the material (aka constipation) OR b. extruding it at undesirable rates (aka diarrhea). Either one of that happening, and that too at a graduate thesis exhibition show in a crowded art gallery, would make it the perfect disaster.
‘Dude, as if shitting on the streets for you guys (Indians) was not enough..’
Though the highly sanitized modern societies manage to project the image of the penultimate pristine very well by pushing the excrement under the rug (or the streets), the problem is not really gone and it re-surfaces every now and then in every corner of the world (usually happens when it rains a lot). The attitudes towards management and handling waste vary but all in all, it is looked at as a thing that must be immediately gotten rid of. The truth is, all of our civilization and us are covered in filth – of our own excretions and those of others. Come to think of it, societies are the best way to come into direct and indirect contact with the excrement of others. What was once limited to probably the animals and the family on the farm now extends to everyone who sat on that toilet seat or touched the door knob of that high-society lounge you and I might wish to visit. With that at their core, societies strive for ‘cleanliness’. Over hundreds of years, we have solved certain problems and introduced practices that positively transformed health and hygiene at a global level, but with that attitude we are also flushing the baby out with the bathwater.
Building Material Of The Future – Here and Beyond
Used as a fertilizer, fuel and a construction material regardless of time and place – it is only sensible to see it as the next big problem as well as the answer to the mounting pile of humans and their excreta. A few efforts have briefly brought some attention to the potential of feces as a construction material but the stigma is an understandably great one to overcome. This also prevents further work towards solutions that will help, and the reactions I experienced, ranging from understandingly disagreeing to extreme mockery, were a good example of that. The common concern of biological hazard and odors has been addressed long ago and the only thing that requires work is our perception. Think of it – an abundantly available ecologically friendly material that can and has been used to create strong composites!
As we are expanding our reaches into the space, talks about colonizing Mars are getting serious with every passing day. Dealing with humans and their waste will thus be more important than ever. Since energy efficiency is of utmost importance in space missions, researchers are exploring ways to fully utilize this space poop (as an energy source), which would otherwise be stored and hauled back to earth. They have been doing that with urine and astronauts already get enough questions on that. Also, no matter how tempting it sounds, we cannot just let packets of frozen human feces drift for a millennia until they land on a planet wiping out an alien life (or even birthing it). So, the solution will be simple for us – we will have to figure out a way to use our own feces to construct these new worlds. And when it is 3D printed (ie. if my hypothetical extruder works by then in Mars’ gravity, I am also fine with throwing lasers at sewage sludge blended with a photo-polymer if that looks cooler) and setup by an army of robots, the possibilities can be endless. All humans would need to do would be to wake up from their deep sleep upon their arrival and move into their new Martian homes made out of waste collected from the previous missions. As they live, they shall also contribute their bit for the future occupants of that community. Will be just like the stories where the filth off one’s body was used to create heroes and their armor.