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Toilets, taboos and turning waste into a valuable resource

Two people stand and present to a group gathered. A bright yellow plant is visible to the right.

Hayley Joyell Smith is on a mission to stop wasting waste.

A doctoral candidate in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and River Basin Center affiliate, Smith serves as a geosciences educator and the board director of PHLUSH—a nationwide nonprofit that advocates for sanitation justice, public toilet availability and ecological systems that restore health to water, soils and communities.

Through her nonprofit and education work, she hopes to change the way students, water resource practitioners and even municipalities think about waste management, using eco-sanitation to frame urine and feces as valuable nutrients to reintegrate into a system.

“There are a lot of movements and technology in sustainability that are highly focused on mitigating our impact on the Earth. But let’s shift the paradigm—we’re not just mitigating our harm, we’re actually creating good,” said Smith.

Early Interest

Smith discovered her love of water and rocks while she was young. She grew up in Anderson, Indiana, where her family spent time outdoors camping and fishing. 

“I made friends with the trees,” explained Smith. “I don’t ever remember being scared of bugs or snakes. I always remember feeling comfortable in nature.” 

Now a seasoned academic, Smith felt more comfortable outdoors than in the classroom as a child. She has dyslexia, and it impacted her school experience. “When I got out in the wilderness, doing these trips, it didn’t require math. It just required really good observation,” she said.

A woman poses with a bright blue hat.
Smith completed The Environmental Ethics Certificate Program here at UGA, and the first chapter of her dissertation is on the ethics of ecological sanitation systems.

It wasn’t until her undergraduate degree at Hanover College that she began to consider science as a career path more seriously. Interested in learning more about the Earth, she first took an intro to geology course, and then a month-long Maymester course that took her all the way to New Mexico, to conduct hands-on field work. 

While there, she had a conversation with her geology professor about opportunities to use science as a tool to improve the environment. That discussion prompted her to add geology as a second major.

During her undergraduate degree, she integrated philosophy and geology, letting each discipline inform the other, eventually visiting China to study Taoism alongside her research on the Three Gorges Dam. 

Smith’s real-world experiences and interdisciplinary background remain hugely influential to her. Now, she’s dedicated huge portions of her career to helping other students learn in experiential ways. 

The HydroLink

After receiving a master’s degree in marine, earth and atmospheric sciences from North Carolina State University, Smith worked at a nonprofit called RiverLink. There, she developed and built an interactive model of urban water and wastewater systems to help educate the public on how water moves from a water source to their tap and beyond.

Through a series of pumps and valves, participants can move water through every stage of the system. The Urban HydroLink is complete with a miniaturized home, water tower and waste treatment plant—it’s almost quaint. 

And that’s entirely purposeful, according to Smith. 

“We know from the research and experience that models are engaging. We learn better when playing,” she said. “If you want people to remember something, make it fun.”

Her doctoral work puts that theory to the test. She’s studying student understanding and recall of water and waste systems before and after interacting with the HydroLink. 

True to Smith’s penchant for the tactile and hands-on, her methods include art. Students draw diagrams of water systems before and after playing with a HydroLink, to capture their mental schema of the system at each point. 

person stands in front of miniature town
Smith demonstrates the HydroLink. Through her public education, she encourages people to to move from a “flush and forget” to a “capture and cultivate” mindset around waste.

Their diagrams are drastically more accurate and detailed after using the interactive model. 

And that might actually go a long way toward changing their water use for the better. Most often, education precedes conservation. Her latest findings show that students are open to adopting new sanitation practices. “My data suggests that students here at UGA would prefer to use toilet systems that contribute to solutions and sustainability,” Smith explained. “I don’t think any of those students, when they flush a toilet, want to cause harm to the natural environment or a downstream community.” 

Someday, Smith would love to see the HydroLink support education in classrooms and nonprofits around the country, possibly with customizations to more closely mimic a given municipality’s system. 

Journey to PHLUSH

Smith is a globetrotter, and became aware of a dearth of humanitarian efforts on the sanitation front during her travels.

“I started noticing that there were so many initiatives to build wells, but there seemed like this very obvious other side that was really neglected,” she said. “I began learning more about how to safely treat household wastewater and then found myself building systems in developing countries. It wasn’t how I originally thought I would use my science skills, but it’s meaningful work that helps the environment.”

A decade later, she got involved with PHLUSH—which stands for Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human. But she’s been active in conservation spaces before and intends to make it a core component of her career. 

Both in her academic roles and her position with PHLUSH, Smith has found that talking about waste and eco-toilet sanitation systems can be an uphill battle. 

There’s a strong stigma around discussing feces and urine—and a lot of that is biological, Smith acknowledges. “We have survived from an evolutionary standpoint because of our ability to identify danger. And poop is dangerous,” she explained. “So, there is a genetic disposition to respond with a lot of disgust.”  

But it’s perhaps more disgusting that we pollute drinking water through wastewater systems, Smith points out. Learning how to avoid contaminated drinking water helps overcome people’s initial hesitancy to engage with the topic.

And having conversations about sanitation is necessary, she maintains. Eco-toilets are a fundamental part of environmentally conscious waste management, using nutrients, carbon and water in a more circular way.

As PHLUSH works to provide adequate public restroom access across the nation, agitate for increased sanitation funding and provide sanitation relief after natural disasters, the nonprofit pairs its work with the principles of eco-sanitation.

Most eco-toilets first separate liquids from solids. Urine contains most of the nutrients found in human waste, and feces house most of the pathogens. The urine then goes through a pasteurization processes—which might be as simple as letting it sit isolated for a few weeks—before being used as fertilizer. Feces, in dry environments, go through a pasteurization and composting process, completely converting to soil.

Smith’s work on the nonprofit board is just one facet of her career.

She has dreams of becoming a professor, buying land in North Carolina and building a closed loop home there, widening the scope of her advocacy and anti-waste work. And she wants others to join her.

“Let’s teach people about systems that are solutions to nutrient deficiencies in our soil, that are solutions for our freshwater resources and water conservation,” said Smith. “Let’s put in systems that empower people so that they can be part of a system that contributes to good.”

Learn more about Smith’s current and past work at her website.