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Why actress Patricia Arquette builds compost toilets

Having won an Oscar, two Primetime Emmys and three Golden Globes, Patricia Arquette has been acclaimed for a slew of roles — from a single mother in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” to Allison DuBois in the drama series “Medium.” But when the actress recently came to Berlin during the Human Rights Film Festival, it was not to celebrate another red carpet event. She was rather invited to discuss the benefits of compost toilets at the screening of the film “Holy Shit: Can Poop Save the World?” (Also read: World Toilet Day (November 19): The artists and their artsy toilets)

Actress Patricia Arquette with children in Kampala, Uganda (Alisa Puga Keesey)

Sanitation work is ‘most punk rock thing’

“I know. It’s so crazy. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute, she’s a celebrity and she does sanitation work?’ It is really bizarre, but I’m punk rock, you know? And this is kind of the most punk rock thing you could do,” Arquette told DW.

She explained that the unusual pursuit started after the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Hoping to help rebuild the country, she set up a foundation called GiveLove.

While researching for possible ways to help improve sanitation, Arquette considered traditional methods that require great quantities of water. A humanitarian aid worker warned the actor, however, that such systems would incur heavy maintenance costs, and are difficult to implement in areas without electricity.

She then discovered a low maintenance and low energy solution: The compost toilet that biologically processes human waste without water.

“Basically, it treats all the pathogens and then you end up with compost,” explains Arquette. “And it’s affordable. You can fix it in country. You can teach people how to master it, whether they can read or write or not. And so we thought it was really a great option for empowering communities.”

The idea worked so well in Haiti that GiveLove went on to implement other training programs in Nicaragua, Colombia, Uganda, Kenya, India and the United States — in partnership with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, where Arquette spent over a month to help build over 100 compost toilets.

Compost toilets in modern housing in Germany

GiveLove’s work in Uganda is among the projects featured in the documentary “Holy Shit: Can Poop Save the World?”

Director Ruben Abruna traveled to 16 cities on four different continents to explore the damage caused by sewage pollution, and to show how compost toilets provide an alternative that could be adopted around the world — and not only in impoverished regions.

The Allermöhe ecological settlement in Hamburg, also featured in the film, is a pioneer in this regard.

The houses in the settlement are equipped with dry toilets, which look exactly like “normal” toilets though flushing is done without water.

These modern composting toilets save approximately 50 liters of water per person every day, according to the settlement’s website. And the local, biological treatment of the feces is much cheaper and environmentally-friendly than having the waste sent to conventional sewage treatment plants for processing.

Meanwhile, and contrary to what most people might expect, compost toilets do not stink.

Outhouses from Haiti to Hollywood

Aspects of Arquette’s work with her foundation reminded the actress of her own experience of poverty as a child.

“I grew up in a hippie commune, and at a certain point, we were seven people living in a tiny room. And we didn’t have a bathroom, so we had to go to the outhouse or we had to go down to this other building that had a bathroom in it,” she recalls.

Today, as a Hollywood star doing humanitarian work, Arquette admits that trips to countries like Haiti have caused her to check her privilege.

“At first I kind of had a little bit of a breakdown,” she says, referring to the first time she returned from Haiti. As someone who could alway simply go to the bathroom and drink water, in Haiti she quickly faced a different reality as became sick when drinking water from a tap.

1,000 children die every day due to lacking sanitation

To raise awareness about the global lack of access to sanitation and drinking water, the United Nations has created World Toilet Day, marked every year on November 19.

According to the UN, there are currently 3.5 billion people in the world living without safe toilets. So-called “open defecation” allows diseases to spread, and an estimated 1,000 children under the age of five die every single day due to unsafe water and inadequate sanitation.

And as Patricia Arquette points out, the problem can end up affecting people in privileged parts of the world, too.

The state of California is currently working on a pilot project with her foundation, in order to plan for sanitation solutions for people who lose their homes in wildfires. After all, natural catastrophes are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change.

Edited by: Stuart Braun

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