Social Start-ups: Ekam Eco Solutions

Using water doesn’t ensure that a urinal will be odour- free and clean. “In fact, when urine mixes with water, it releases ammonia, which causes the foul smell. Flushing with water doesn’t make the urinal hygienic," explains Uttam Banerjee, director and CEO, Ekam Eco Solutions, a social start-up which makes Zerodor, a technology related to waterless urinals.

The story of Zerodor started in the corridors of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-D), which is also Banerjee’s alma mater. He did his masters in industrial design from the institute and was pondering on many ideas in the field of sanitation when he came across a thesis paper which talked about waterless urinals. Associate professor Vijayaraghavan M. Chariar, who teaches at the Centre for Rural Development and Technology at IIT-D, had submitted this a few years ago as his PhD thesis. Chariar, who is now chairman and director, Ekam Eco Solutions, did not pursue this further at the time because IIT-D, being an academic institution, can’t commercialize any of its innovation on its own. Banerjee met Chariar in 2008 while pursuing his masters and in January 2013 the duo joined hands to form Ekam Eco Solutions and started to work on the first commercial prototype. Their company was formally incorporated in May 2013. Banerjee says he didn’t want to work on conventional sanitation systems but on an “ecological and sustainable system", which is why the thesis paper interested him. “After using the flush, urine and water get mixed. All this lands up in the river bodies, whether treated or untreated. We felt there is a need for an intervention—a system which was eco-friendly, non-polluting, sustainable and saves water," says Banerjee.

Zerodor is a patented technology, the rights of which rest with IIT-D. Ekam Eco Solutions holds the rights to disseminate this technology nationally and internationally. It is a mechanical system with a valve, which allows the urine to go through and blocks the ammonia present in the urine in the urinal pipe. It can be retrofitted in existing urinals and is available in three different materials—the water flush is unistalled once the system is installed. No chemicals are used, and no electricity is required, making the kit low maintenance. All that needs to be done is to wash the urinal with running water once a day to keep it clean. “We don’t recommend the number of times a urinal should be cleaned in a day. Clients know the frequency of use of a particular urinal and must decide accordingly," says Banerjee.

Banerjee explains that with waterless urinals, one can save anywhere between 50,000-1,51,000 litres of water per urinal each year. Zerodor costs between 2,500-4,500, depending on the material used and accompaniments such as pipes, and connectors. “Installing one such urinal will recover the cost in a month or so with the savings you will make by using no water and associated costs like power, plumbing and maintenance. And we can guarantee the life of one system for three years," adds Banerjee.

The first official order was from IIT-D in December 2013 for 700 Zerodor units and since then Ekam Eco Solutions has retrofitted some 6,000 pieces across the country. The client list includes Ambuja Cements, Jain Irrigation, Cummins, Polaris, Maruti Suzuki and Vedanta. “For institutions, the Leeds and green ratings are a big attraction point to go waterless and that’s where Zerodor works for them," adds Banerjee.

However, a major impediment during the initial stage was convincing people about Zerodor. “People are not easily convinced if it is a simple technology. Make it complex and they will jump on it," says Banerjee. Also, for many, it is not about conserving water but more about odour control. “One of the reasons to brand it as Zerodor not ‘zerowater’ was to deal with the concern around odour," he says.

The company is also undertaking pilots for the Indian defence forces. “The Indian Navy has shown keen interest because they are looking at waterless urinal solutions for their submarines and warships," he adds.

The next stage is to make the system more ecological and the company is running a pilot project at the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Hyderabad, where it has installed urinals near a garden. The urine is collected in a tank. Nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium present in the urine can be used in farming through a process called fertigation. The land is drip-irrigated few inches below the surface by urine so that there is no smell.

“The urine can be used directly without dilution. It is completely safe and nutrient rich," Banerjee says. He indicates that if urine is stored over a long period it turns mildly acidic, so it should be diluted with water in 70:30 ratio.

“There is no harm in using urine directly. The only requirement is, it should be applied to soil directly and while applying it should not spill on leaves," says Chilkunda A. Srinivasamurthy, professor and university head, department of soil science and agricultural chemistry, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore.

He has worked extensively on the use of human urine as a fertilizers. During 2009-2012, his department researched 12 crops like French beans, finger millet, tomato and brinjal on the same piece of land. “The yield of all the crops was significantly highest in treatment receiving human urine and manure followed by human urine alone," he says.

“It will be sustainable if the common public is made aware of the importance of human urine as a liquid fertilizer and the importance of ecological sanitation," he adds.

Zerodor helps save water and harvest urine—that’s two problems tackled with one solution.

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