Social Innovation to Reinvent the Toilet

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wants social innovation to rethink the technology of the flush toilet. The Foundation has created a competition, ’Reinvent the Toilet’, which is open to researchers at eight universities who have the opportunity to win an attractive prize of $3 million. The challenge is to use technology to create toilet models that do not need to be connected to sewers, water and electricity lines, and importantly cost next to nothing for people to use. This will help regions that do not have such systems or for places where waste water treatment plants, many of them ageing, are overburdened by the demands of fast-growing populations.

It is ridiculous when you realise that the present day toilet is a 19th century contraption, which has not moved with the times, and consequently does not meet the needs of most of the world’s population. There are approximately 2.6 billion people without access to sewer-linked systems who are forced to use simple latrines, holes in the ground or just the nearest available spot; a situation that can lead to many health problems. Therefore, one of the new social innovation toilets being financed by the Foundation is a hope for the future. It is a compact chamber that runs on solar power from a roof panel and uses built-in electrochemical technology to process waste.

Dr. Frank Rijsberman, an executive at the Foundation thinks chemical engineering might be the social innovation solution to inventing future toilets, as instead of composting waste for six months, as many waterless composting toilets do, the new types could heat the waste quickly, killing harmful bacteria.

One of the social innovation funded projects taking this approach forward is a design for waste disposal at community bathrooms in South Africa. Dr Katherine Foxon from the University of KwaZulu, Durban and a member of the team that is working on this technology says, “We’ll process the waste chemically, combusting the faeces and using that energy to drive the evaporation of urine.” Dealing with urine separately, by draining it off to local storage tanks, simplifies waste water management as the urine can be collected, treated and recycled as fertilizer.

The efforts of the Foundation and the issues that the competition is addressing are significant. The planet needs toilets that are cheap and which can be used by more than two billion poor people. ’Reinvent the Toilet’ has so far created social innovation toilet models that have the potential to provide good solutions. What is critical in all these efforts is that the teams come up with a design that is economically possible. This research and work is worthwhile; and not a waste; eventually it will help to improve the lives of many more people.

Source: Justmeans (link opens in a new window)