This may have been the last technological development you expected to hear about, especially since we’ve been perfectly happy to use the current flush system for some 150 years without questioning it a great deal. But only those of us lucky enough to be in areas where tons of water are at our disposal everyday will have been enjoying the ease of simply pulling a handle.
As part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates hosted a competition in Seattle this week, hoping to ‘reinvent’ our sanitation systems for some of the 2.5 billion people in the world who don’t have access to modern toilets. Scientists and entrepreneurs showcased revolutionary toilets in an impressive display of how waste could be transformed into energy. To be considered for the prize the toilet had to operate without the use of running water, electricity or a septic system – all the factors that prevent poverty-stricken areas from having the hygienic sanitation that is taken for granted in the developed world. The systems were also expected not to discharge pollutants, preferably ‘capture energy’ and have minimal operation costs (5 cents or less a day). Some of the new loos are able to recycle waste into animal feed, water for irrigation and re-use the disposal energy to run the system thereafter. One entrant, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is already testing their toilet right here in Cape Town, South Africa, using a system that disperses black soldier fly larvae in the toilet to process the waste, which is transformed into a high quality animal feed. This can be done at the bargain price of one penny a day, prompting requests from other countries on the continent to be included the trial. Other examples include toilets that use microwave energy to transform human waste into electricity, capture urine for further flushing, are solar-powered and one that turns excrement into charcoal.
According to USA Today, the United Nations ‘estimates disease caused by unsafe sanitation results in about half the hospitalizations in the developing world. About 1.5 million children die each year from diarrheal disease’. These shocking, preventable statistics are what the ‘Reinventing the Toilet’ Fair hopes to change. Some of the best entrants will even be receiving grants to continue their work and install trial toilets in different cities – $370m (£235m) will be dedicated to this toilet initiative with prototypes due to be rolled-out within three years and not just for the developing world. Gates said of the project, “If we do it right, there’s every possibility that some of these designs would also be solutions for rich and middle-income countries.”