On a trip to Tokyo, I experienced washroom facilities so advanced, so automated, so amazing that our American customs seemed downright barbaric in comparison. Then I spent time in rural areas of the Philippines, and I felt grateful, spoiled even, for what we have. Many Americans don’t like to talk about what happens in the bathroom. We crinkle our noses at the topic or make crude jokes. I’m no stranger to toilet humor, but the worldwide sanitation crisis is no laughing matter.
The World Health Organization estimates that 2.5 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation. This leads to increased illness and death, particularly in children, lack of education, loss of productivity, and wider gender inequality. Most people who go without access to basic toilet facilities live in rural and/or developing regions, but even those who live in urban areas should be aware of how waste management works and the ramifications of losing those services. Natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy can easily shut down sewer mains and water pumps, and life-long city-dwellers can quickly find themselves in conditions that much of the world endures every day.
A little over a year ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued a “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” The goal was to create a new sanitation model that was effective at destroying pathogens and recovering resources, cheap, sustainable, able to function “off-grid” without water or electricity, and appealing enough to replace the most modern of toilets. Think bionic commode. We can rebuild it. We have the technology.
In August 2012, the Gates Foundation awarded first prize to Caltech engineer Michael Hoffmann and his team for their solar-powered model. Their prototype disinfects solid matter, which can then be used as fertilizer. The liquid is siphoned off into a tank containing an electrode system powered by the solar panels. The system drives an electrochemical reaction that breaks down organic matter and produces hydrogen gas, which can then be stored in batteries to power nighttime or low-light operation. The remaining liquid is further treated, filtered, and returned to the toilet for flushing or used for irrigation.
Second place was awarded to Loughborough University’s system, which converts waste into charcoal, minerals and water through a process they call “Continuous Thermal Hydrocarbonisation.” Third place went to the University of Toronto, whose system uses sand and UV rays to filter and disinfect liquid, respectively, and a smoldering chamber to incinerate solid waste.
So on World Toilet Day, let us educate ourselves in disaster preparedness, be thankful for our modern conveniences, and marvel at the innovations that may one day change the entire world.