Solar-Powered & Self-Contained:
New, Better Toilets to Help Billions
The #1 and the #2 are in. The best new concepts for a self-sustained, affordable, and environmentally safe toilet bow have been chosen. Now, the task is to get them to where they’re most needed.
While we take it for granted, and are justifiably guarded about what happens in our bathrooms, to the world’s majority, a toilet is an unknown luxury. When there isn’t one around, disease is never far.
Recognizing the problem, the Gates Foundation has launched a competition for the most practical toilet design that wouldn’t require the complex infrastructure hidden inside city walls of rich societies.
This year’s winning entry, by the California Institute of Technology, follows the competition’s tenets: it operates without running water, electricity or a septic system, doesn’t discharge pollutants, it’s solar-powered, and costs five cents a day.
Other projects proposed to recycle waste into usable substances such as animal feed, water for irrigation, or even just energy and water to run their own systems. Caltech one uses chemistry and engineering to transform waste.
The top entries chosen will receive additional funds to make the transition from lab to the field. Their ultimate destination is, of course, developing nations and impoverished communities.
When this project was launched last year, we published a post with some stats and data, just to bring you to speed about this issue. Since not much has change since, we’re making that available for your future bathroom breaks.
For the Poor, a Better Toilet;
But for the Plump, a Bigger One
One of most desperate challenges facing impoverished communities around the world (read it, the majority of the population), along with hunger and need for shelter, is the need for clean sanitation.
According to the World Health Organization, 2.4 billion people have no access to even basic sanitary facilities. That includes clean water, which is virtually off limits to 1.1 billion bodies in the world today.
Whereas the modern toilet system is an effective way for keeping people healthy in industrialized societies, its complexity and infrastructure requirements are simply not practical for most of the developing world.
Ironically, for such societies there’s also a new, almost opposite challenge to tackle: obesity. In the U.S., for example, about one-third of adults are overweight, according to the CDC, including 17% of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years.
In the U.K., one in every 11 deaths is now linked to carrying excess fat, the highest ratio in Europe and 50 per cent more than in France. Tragically, even not-so well off nations have now alarming levels of obesity, but we’re sure you already knew that.
You may have also realized by now where this all ends up. You bet, in the bathroom. But that’s when solutions for challenges facing our modern societies vary as widely as the social and economic gaps that define them.
So to tackle infectious diseases linked to water contamination and lack of sewer systems in the developing world, there needs to be a whole new way of thinking about how to dispose of human waste. And that may include reinventing the toilet bowl.
That’s exactly where organizations such as the Gates Foundation and others are investing some of their resources. The founder of Microsoft, for instance, is giving $41.5 million to any university that can develop a self-sustainable, hygienic latrine, that won’t require running water or a septic system.
It makes sense. Diarrhea, a fatal disease that thrives with poor sanitation, is responsible for up to 8.5% of all deaths in Southeast Asia and Africa. Some 2.2 million people, mostly children, die each year from diarrhea caused by E.coli, and by viral and parasitic infections.
Different societies, diverse needs, absurd solutions, you may say when you learn what’s been done about high obesity in industrialized societies. Never mind dieting, exercising or healthier eating habits.
Concerned about the rise in bathroom accidents suffered by overweight people, the toilet-making industry devised a guilty-free solution: bigger toilet bowls. That’s right.
Instead of the usual 14-inch wide hole toilet, which has been used since the early 1900s, there’s now the whooping 19-inch size, built with industrial-strength materials to prevent breakages.
You can’t blame the industry for trying to capitalize in a worldwide trend, however unhealthy it may be. Besides, the multi-billion dollar junk food lobby has been fighting tooth and nail any attempts to curb its ability to tap into our ever expanding girth.
But this is one of those traits of our particular time that we’d be utterly embarrassed having to explain it to a visitor from the future. It’s a good thing then that, as far as science is concerned, there’s no such a thing as time travel.
* Originally Published in July, 2011.
* From Phone to Loo
* Serious Business