Kivalina has developed the first human waste biochar reactor for the Arctic. It arrived by barge in Kivalina in July. The pioneering Kivalina Biochar Reactor is an initiative of the Kivalina Native Village and the Kivalina City Council to innovate a pipe-less and relocatable sanitation system to eventually replace the honeybucket and to reduce the cost of village relocation. High costs of relocation have imposed a formidable barrier to village planning, with sanitation infrastructure comprising a major portion of village relocation costs. Centralized sewered sanitation systems, with comparable capital costs of $70 million in neighboring villages to Kivalina (which doesn’t include operation and maintenance costs), not only are prohibitive cost-wise, but centralized infrastructure is also vulnerable to climate impacts, including permafrost melt, flooding, and coastal erosion that affect Kivalina today and that will continue to impact Kivalina into the future as climate change continues unabated.
The Kivalina Biochar Reactor was engineered to convert solid human waste separated by Urine Diverting Dry Toilets into biochar—a carbon-rich, pathogen-free, value-added byproduct. Biochar can be used to filter odor, boost plant growth as a soil amendment, and remediate pollution at contaminated sites. The concept for Kivalina’s bioreactor emerged from investigations by Three Degrees Warmer’s Re-Locate project and the Climate Foundation (with support from a NAPECA Community Grant) into how new forms of non-sewered, haul-based sanitation systems from around the world could be adapted to serve communities in Alaska like Kivalina.
The Kivalina Biochar Reactor is an Arctic adaptation of technology the Gates Foundation first built in India as part of its 2011 Reinvent the Toilet Challenge—an international competition to bring sustainable solutions to the 2.5 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to safe, affordable sanitation.
In 2015, the Kivalina City Council and the Native Village Council passed a Joint Resolution to fund, design, and build a relocatable human waste bioreactor for Kivalina modeled off the Gates Foundation’s India model. The Kivalina Biochar Reactor is designed to support existing local waste collection and hauling practices, relocate easily to new locations by fitting entirely within a single shipping container, and to run off its own energy after start up. (The goal is to eventually run Kivalina’s system entirely off grid.) It uses a process of pyrolysis—combustion at high temperatures in a low oxygen environment—to render a charcoal byproduct that is free of harmful pathogens. Unlike the Gates system, the Kivalina cold-weather system uses forced air instead of a boiler to dry the waste. Another difference is that wipes, toilet paper, cardboard, and other limited dry municipal wastes are preprocessed by a heavy duty grinder before pyrolysis.The reactor’s architecture was designed and fabricated to feature task-specific insulation, ventilation, safety and health measures, and a custom exterior graphic designed by the Seattle design firm, Civilization, with support from ArtPlace America’s Creative Placemaking Grant.
At the request of Kivalina’s Joint Councils, NANA’s Village Economic Development program (under the leadership of Dean Westlake) and Teck Resources, Ltd. invested in the reactor’s development and provided the needed funding to build the prototype the project. Biomass Controls, the engineering firm that built the India reactor for the Gates Foundation, built Kivalina’s Biochar Reactor. Re-Locate LLC—a small business set up to develop relocatable, decentralized infrastructure—designed and managed the project. (Jen Marlow, Three Degrees Executive Director, is a co-owner.) And Three Degrees Warmer will continue to support the project with the EPA Environmental Justice grant by educating and training local operators to run the unit, and providing initial operator salaries once the reactor is running. The reactor will be operational in Kivalina as soon as the permitting phase is finalized.
Biochar sanitation technologies could be transformational in communities like Kivalina where the infrastructural, environmental, and funding challenges to deploying centralized sanitation systems are well documented. Technologies like the biochar reactor offer opportunities to prototype and test alternative, world-class sanitation solutions to these challenges both in, and for, Alaska. Newly developed technologies like the Kivalina Biochar Reactor can reduce the volume of solid human waste disposed at landfills, offer an alternative to piped infrastructure, lower monthly homeowner fees, transform waste from a health hazard into a resource, and substantially lower the cost of village relocation. Kivalina has been trying to relocate the village for over 30 years as a way to improve inadequate water and sanitation, address overcrowding, create more opportunities for economic integration, and adapt to the accelerating impacts of climate change.
Villages in Alaska need not wait for world-class sanitation. Real alternatives are possible now. Please visit relocate-ak.org and Re-Locate’s Facebook page for updates. Share this story as part of World Toilet Day 2019.