Bill Gates is obsessed with redesigning the world's toilets - and he just brought a container of poo onstage to prove it
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
- Bad sanitation kills 525,000 children under five every year and contributes to malnutrition and the spread of disease.
- Bill Gates thinks it's not practical for the entire world to adopt flush toilets, so he's spending $400 million to fund research into toilets that don't require a sewer system.
- After seven years of investment, some of the first products are available.
Bill Gates isn't afraid of potty talk.On Tuesday, he got onstage in front of business leaders, investors, and government officials from around the world and unveiled what he politely referred to as a "little exhibit." It was a glass jar filled with human feces.
The jar of poo was used to make a point: Around the world, in places without proper sanitation or sewage systems, there's much more than a jar's worth of unsanitary human waste sitting around."That's what kids, when they're out playing, they are being exposed to all the time," Gates said, noting the link between bad sanitation and disease, death, and malnutrition.
To address that problem, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started its Reinvent the Toilet Challenge in 2011. The initiative funded $200 million in grants for universities around the world to develop a next-generation toilet. The goal: develop a waste-processing system that doesn't need to be hooked up a typical sanitation and sewer grid.The new systems that have been created with those grants turn what we put into the toilet into fertilizer, energy, or recycled water, some of which is good enough to drink.The Gates Foundation now intends to invest an additional $200 million into research that can yield additional ways to deal with human waste at the source.
The problem with the toilets we have now
©Gates Archive/Sam Phelps
In 2015, the World Health Organization estimated that just 39% of the world's people were using a "safely-managed" lavatory, whether it be a toilet or a decently clean latrine.Living without a good toilet can be unsafe. People who come in contact with fecal matter face a risk of deadly infections and chronic health problems, since human feces carry pathogens like E. coli, Streptococcus, hepatitis A and E, and more. Those can cause pneumonia and diarrhea - the top two killers of kids around the world.
Plus, if people don't have a place to go at home, they have to travel alone into woods or a field to relieve themselves, which can be risky for women and children living in conflict zones.
"When you think about things that are basic, right up there with health and enough to eat, I think having a reasonable toilet certainly belongs on that list," Gates said.Read More: Do you really have to wash your hands every time you use the bathroom? The definitive answer, according to science
With stratospheric rates of population growth in cities across Africa and Asia, the problem is only set to get worse."Unless we do something, the cycle of disease will actually be accelerated," Gates said.
Gates doesn't think it's practical to expect the entire world to connect their homes to yet-to-be-built sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants. That's why he has been on a quest to do for toilets what he argues Microsoft did for computing: get the business off a centralized, "mainframe" system.Gates started by asking engineers at universities around the world a simple but yet-unanswered question: "could you leapfrog the long-accepted 'gold standard' of sanitation?" "A decade ago, I didn't think I would be able to tell you so much about poop," Gates said.
The first generation of sewer-free toilets is here, but they aren't cheap yet
After seven years and $200 million of investment, the first batch of products from the "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge" is being tested in locations around India, Africa, and China.
One of the first new toilets is the solar-powered Eco-san system, pictured below. Based on technology developed at Cal Tech, the Eco-san extracts clean water from human waste and reuses it for future flushing.
©Gates Archive/Shawn Koh
Other models are also in the works from companies and universities around the world.
The University of South Florida's NewGenerator treatment system also runs on solar energy and can be hooked up to any existing toilet. It uses a nano-membrane filter (kind of like a coffee filter) with feces-digesting anaerobic bacteria inside to filter clean water out of the waste.Another toilet from Cranfield University in the UK comes equipped with a little trap door odor barrier and scraper so that it requires no water for flushing. Clean water is filtered out of waste via a large, orange screw in the tank, and solid waste is burned inside the toilet's combustor, which converts the waste into ash and energy. (Thankfully, this all happens out of sight of the people who are using the toilet.)
Yet another model, from Swiss engineering firm Helbling, is called the HTClean Toilet and it functions like a pressure cooker for poo. The immense pressure and heat helps the waste separate into water and solids that aren't toxic.Duke University has also started testing its Gates-funded toilet this year at a textile mill in Coimbatore, India. The system, shown below, separates solid and liquid waste and makes it possible to safely re-use the water for flushing.
©Gates Archive/Ryan Lobo
"We estimate that by 2030, the opportunity here is over $6 billion a year," he said.
©Gates Archive/Samantha Reinders
Gates is also investing in self-powered sewage systemsGates is also obsessed with something called an Omni Processor, which is essentially a much smaller version of a waste treatment plant.
The small plants, one of which is already on the ground in Dakar, Senegal, can serve between 5,000 and 100,000 customers and are completely self-powered. They take in toilet waste, kill pathogens in the sewage, and convert it into "products with commercial value - like clean water, electricity, and fertilizer," Gates said. It's a lot like what astronauts do on the International Space Station - turning their pee into clean, drinkable H2O.
©Gates Archive/Sam Phelps
©Gates Archive/Sam Phelps
"I definitely didn't think that my wife would have to tell me that in some cases I'm talking too much about toilets and how this science of combusting the feces works," he said.But he's committed to the task, since better toilets could help save millions of lives and open up an entirely new market. "A whole new product category is being introduced here," Gates said.
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