I got into environmental engineering to keep people healthy and to protect them from toxins
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Profession: Founder and President of Toilets for People (TfP), Environmental Engineer, Vacation Rental Property Manager
Twitter Handle: @toilets4people
What was the first charitable gift you ever gave?
Donating my time to Engineers Without Borders (EWB). In 2005, I faced a sort of crisis of purpose in my job. I got into environmental engineering to keep people healthy and to protect them from toxins. But I found myself working to clean up sites only to see another gas station or something put back in the same place after I had just cleaned it up. So I asked myself what I was really doing. A colleague brought me to an EWB meeting, and I started to get involved. It seemed to be a way to be much more impactful, and it was exciting.
Who inspires you to give?
My mom. She is a big giver. She thinks of others first and gives generously of her time and energy. This is both in her professional life as a Registered Nurse and in her private life as well. She’s inspiring in that way, and that instills in me the idea of serving others.
I realized a while ago that the things I’m interested in, particularly getting clean water and decent sanitation to people living in developing countries, don’t pay a lot. I’m not going to be one of those people that is able to donate a lot of money so instead, I give my time and energy, like my mom.
What is your charity of choice?:
Toilets for People (TfP).
What made you pursue this as a career?:
TfP was an outgrowth of an EWB project. Another organization had built a medical clinic in the slums of Belen, Peru that was serviced by volunteer doctors and nurses. But there was no toilet for the doctors or nurses to use. They would need to walk out on a plank in the backyard and go in the river. So EWB was asked to build a toilet for the clinic.
I had installed a composting toilet in my vacation cabin in Vermont, and it had been working great for several years. I suggested that we bring one down to Belen, install it, and see if people like it and if it makes life better at the clinic. They loved it! Not only did it transform the bathroom experience for the doctors and nurses that came down to treat people in the community, but it also helped the family that lives at and takes care of the clinic.
This got me thinking that a composting toilet solution could be used by many families in the Belen community and drastically improve their quality of life and health. The problem is that these composting toilets cost $1,500 each, way too expensive for people living in the developing world. I decided to create an affordable, developing-world-appropriate version that could be made using local materials – and the Compact, Rotating, Aerobic, Pollution-Prevention, Excreta Reducer (CRAPPER) was born. I started Toilets for People to produce and sell this product.
The technology of composting toilets is not new, but it is new for the developing world. I started Toilets for People (TfP) to market, produce, and sell the CRAPPER. About 2.5 billion people use unsafe toilets or defecate in the open, so there are many potential customers out there. Right now, we sell our toilets to charity organizations working on water and sanitation projects in the communities they serve.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to work in this field?:
If you are going to be the kind of person to give time and energy for something, it has to be something you like doing. If it isn’t, you won’t do it for that long, you’ll lose focus, and you won’t be good at it. So find what you like to do, and figure out how to apply your skill set in a way that is impactful.
Also, I think it’s important to take it seriously and stay involved. Sometimes it’s not enough to be good, you need to do good. I mean that it’s not only enough to have good intentions, because sometimes you can actually do harm if you don’t have the right approach. What’s right in the short term and the long term may not be immediately apparent, but you’ll know if you stick with it. So many things can go wrong in development work, so you need to keep your eye on the ball, for a long while.