They say there's no such thing as a bad publicity shot.
Well, darned if they didn't try to disprove that at the "Reinventing the Toilet" fair held in Seattle as part of a challenge issued by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in trying to find a toilet design for the 2.6 billion people in the world deprived of proper sanitation systems. The cause is wonderfully noble, and there's real intrigue in finding a model that can be mass produced and sold on a low-price/high-volume level to those parts of the global village that are rubbing up against the modern world more frequently than at any point in human history. These include the modernizing landscapes of India, China, Myanmar, South Sudan, Indonesia, and Cambodia (where villages that float on water are only now separating their water and septic needs ); places where public health and safety are becoming more and more a priority to keep newfound economic success going. The Gates issued $400,000 grants to eight universities with a strict set of standards for the contest: all designs had to be hygienic, sustainable, carbon-neutral, generate energy, and cost 5 cents per person using it in operations. The contest gave many university and company-sponsored teams a chance to show off their innovation.
Of course, some of the PR out of this may not want to be shown, period:
hat's American Standard Brands Engineering VP James McHale smiling his brightest as he dumps simulated (we were told) waste into a container with his company's design for an inexpensive seal that can be attached to most latrine designs in South Asia. It's a great example of a widespread problem: not preparing adequately with your publicity office.
(Also, it shows how to address the more widespread problem of poorly constructed latrines and outhouses)
Other designs presented were fascinating not just in their own individual properties, but how different they are from each other. CalTech researchers designed a toilet powered by solar panels that not only creates hydrogen and electricity in the process but also breaks down the human waste and water into hydrogen gas as a backup power source as well. Delft University of the Netherlands designed technology that emits microwave radiation, turning the waste into electricity.
Even stranger was a design from the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (right) that uses a gravity-driven biological membrane to re-capture water used in the flushing process. Additional submissions included a toilet from North Carolina's RTI International that uses a biomass conversion process to disinfect waste and turn it into energy, and another "solar toilet" from the University of Colorado at Boulder which converts solid waste into a disinfected form of biological charcoal to be used as a fuel source.
Bill Gates posted on his foundation's site after the contest, making a very convincing case for the need to rethink the toilet, not just for developing societies, but our own as well:
"When you think about it, the flush toilet is actually a pretty outdated sanitation solution. It was certainly an important breakthrough when it was created in 1775 by a Scottish mathematician and watchmaker named Alexander Cummings. Over the decades, it led to a sanitary revolution that helped keep deadly diseases like cholera at bay, saving hundreds of millions of lives.
But the fact that four of every 10 people still don’t have access to flush toilets proves that—even today—it is a solution too expensive for much of the world. And in an era where water is becoming increasingly precious, flush toilets that require 10 times more water than our daily drinking water requirement are no longer a smart or sustainable solution."
- Bill Gates, from his Impatient Optimists blog, Aug. 14, 2012.
Installing and maintaining technology like this may be a challenge for any profit-driven endeavor. However, with urban landscapes popping (that's "p-o-p-p-i-n-g" I wrote, there) up more and more all over the world, this is going to be an issue that will demand modern, energy-conscious solutions. The opportunity for remaking the waste management infrastructure to fit the 21st century is there, it just takes someone willing to devote the capital needed to tackle the problem on a global scale. Or for those of you who only think in puns: the ideas are clearly flushed out, they just need to be pushed into the future by a manufacturer willing to wipe the slate clean.
(No, to answer your thought as you read this, bloggers have no shame.)
Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.