With 2.5 billion people in the world not having access to proper sanitation, sustainable development experts are thinking a lot about toilets. That’s because our modern toilet, whose technology has been around for centuries, requires a lot of running (and fairly clean) water.
In August, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hosted the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle, Washington. The event was billed as a “showcase for creating new vision for the next generation of sanitation,” and groups already receiving funded by the foundation were invited to show their progress.
The fact the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the world, is focusing on the solution of the global sanitation problem, might help underscore the importance of the challenge. The foundation has allocated more than $26 billion in grants since its creation in 1994 — more than $3.6 billion of that has gone to support global development and more than $15 billion to improve global health. The foundation has an endowment of $35.6 billion, according to its own figures.
The ultimate goal of Reinventing the Toilet is to develop an independent sanitation system that eliminates waste without the use of running water.
This video explains the situation:
“We are defined by the necessity for sustainability, it’s not a luxury,” said Carl Hensman, a program officer of the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene team of the foundation, who helps decide which projects the foundation funds.
Projects suited for the challenge of accommodating many users, often with little or no power and no running water while eliminating any harmful output, are — by definition — sustainable, explained Mr. Hensmen in a telephone interview last week.
“We’re defined by our environment — everything has to be contained and self-contained,” he said.
The most successful systems are the simplest and the most robust, said Mr. Hensman. Above all they assure that waste products are safely and completely converted or disposed.
Other factors that influence funding decisions are ease of maintenance and beneficial by products.
The winner of the competition was a design that used solar energy to process waste and even produced a little electricity as a by product. It was designed by a team from the California Institute of Technology, which received a $100,000 funding boost for their efforts. The Cal Tech system breaks down human waste and water into hydrogen gas.
A team from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom won the second prize of $60,000, with a system that would turn human waste into a non-odorous, hygienic form of bio-charcoal.
Of the 13 teams participating in the fair, eight came from universities from around the world. The university teams received previous funding from the foundation last year to study the problem and build and test prototypes.
“We’ve had the competition, but we would love to see collaboration,” said Mr. Hensman.
Though the 13 teams were competing, Mr. Hensman said collaboration is one of the most important tools in developing these sanitation systems. During the fair, teams discussed the common problems and some solutions.
The public and media were invited to the showcase event to understand both the global problem and the challenges faced by development teams. Besides providing a long-term solution, the foundation’s aim is to publicize the problem.
The inventions will be field-tested over the next year.
by Christopher F. Schuetze