Thursday, August 23, 2012

Toilets of the future

I've had several friends (thanks Malcolm, Drew, Holly, and Van!) send me articles about Gates Foundation's Reinvent the Toilet Campaign's Fair in Seattle that ran from August 14th to the 15th. This is a campaign I've been very interested in. For those of you who haven't heard of it before, I'll let their snazzy video show you what it's about:

Gates Foundation is on the front of recognizing and acting on the realization that clean water is not effective without sanitation.

The toilet today is pretty much the same one that was invented a couple hundred years ago. While we've updated all other technologies, this one has pretty much kept the same. In "developed" countries, toilet flushing is the number one use of domestic water. It is a major waste of one of our most precious resources. In developing countries, the flush toilet is impractical, requiring a huge and complex infrastructure and vast quantities of water.

Gates Foundation has recognized this and decided to tackle it by coming out with a challenge: reinvent the toilet. Make it environmentally safe, make it cheap, make it possible for developing and developed contexts, and make it pleasant to use. (I particularly applaud the last one, as this is often overlooked in these discussions.) They issued the challenge a year ago, and on August 14th, they announced the winners.

First prize of $100,000 went to California Technical Institute, near Los Angeles, California. (This is the same university, incidentally, who oversees Jet Propulsion Laboratories, who put Curiosity on Mars.)

Loughborough University in the UK won $60,000 for their second place entry. Their toilet "transforms feces into biological charcoal (biochar) through hydrothermal carbonization (decomposition at high temperatures without oxygen and in water) of fecal sludge." It will be powered by burning said biochar and will recover water and salt from the waste.


University of Toronto in Canada won $40,000 for its design that sanitizes feces for resource recovery through "mechanical dehydration" and "smoldering" (low temperature, flameless combustion) within 24 hours while urine is zapped with a UV light.

Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, won an honorable mention for the user interface of its urine diverting toilet.

You have to admit, it does look pretty.

What do these disparate designs have in common?

1) They're decentralized. They don't need to be plugged into some massive state infrastructure.
2) They don't create massive amounts of waste that needs to be managed by a government or personally scooped out by anybody.
3) They create new resources from "waste."
4) They don't suck to use.

So what next? The fair brought together hundreds of designs, but new toilet designs aren't going to be that helpful if they're not built or bought.

Alfredo Behrens of Harvard Business Review's blog asks, "Are you ready?" for the demand of markets in India and China. The largest supplier of toilets in the world is Roca, in Barcelona, which sold 32.5 million units in 2010. This is nothing in comparison with Behren's estimate of a coming demand for as many as 150 million toilets in India alone. Is it possible that these new toilet designs can enter the market this way?

Another possibility might come from a government-subsidized retrofitting of old houses in cities where the sanitation infrastructure is falling apart. Instead of investing in a crumbling infrastructure or expanding it in urban sprawl situations, what if the government paid for toilets like the ones I've discussed, that would not require they be plugged into a larger system?

The possibilities are tantalizing. With technical innovation working to push the sanitation revolution farther along, it's up to policymakers, business people, and everyday people to help carry it even farther.

1 comment:

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