Guest Articles

August 7

Virginia Gardiner

Rethinking the Flush Toilet: It’s Time to Move Sanitation Infrastructure Off the Grid

It’s time for humanity to rethink the traditional water-flush toilet. This is fairly obvious to anyone who has worked in the development sector and it’s becoming painfully obvious in places that have spent decades taking the flush toilet for granted.

In 2017, the UN reported that almost six in 10 people lack access to safely managed sanitation and that 80 percent of wastewater is being dumped untreated. While water rationing currently impacts places like California and the Eternal City, by 2025, 66 percent of the world’s population will be living under water scarcity. Rising sea levels and changing weather have caused increasing urban floods that lead to cholera outbreaks and bathe whole neighbourhoods in faecal coliforms, right here in England. But despite the universality of the problem, a double standard afflicts the sanitation world.

In affluent places, the bathroom is an expensive refuge of fixtures and fittings, ablutions and flushes. A short book, “The Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste” by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbot Miller eloquently puts forth the thesis, rooted in design history of 1920s America, that the “flush and forget” treatment of excrement makes a fine microcosm for our attitude toward resources in general, reflecting our culture’s celebratory obsession with consumption.

But in emerging markets, expectations for user experience are low. The widely implemented latrine is generally putrid and especially unsuitable for dense urban areas. Latrines overfill with heavy use and leach faecal matter into the soil and groundwater. Emptying latrines is so hard and disgusting that it creates an underclass of plagued manual laborers.

The flush toilet remains a heralded symbol, an impossible dream in for many in emerging markets. Back in 2008, Rose George’s “The Big Necessity” presented the global sanitation crisis in devastating detail, and the urgent need for solutions that would offer this superb Victorian standard without requiring waterborne sewerage. This was the same year that urban populations outstripped rural ones.

Nine years later at FSM4 2017, the fourth international Faecal Sludge Managament Conference in Chennai, the point remained: Flush toilets won’t apply in the 21st century, so how do we create a viable sanitation service?


Paying customers

Creating a service customers want to pay for has to be part of the solution. But in markets where the incumbent technology is a makeshift latrine, chamber pot or plastic bag – free of charge, odiferous, undignified – what will make customers want to pay for toilets? Only a fabulous experience combined with affordable products and service. In addition, providing complete sanitation coverage in a given community or geographic area will require service to customers with a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Increasing customer density will lead to lower cost of service but also requires different payment tiers.


Leapfrog infrastructure

In the 21st century, sanitation infrastructure has to move off the grid, just as mobile communications did in the 20th. A growing number of companies – including SOIL in Haiti, x-runner in Peru, CleanTeam in Ghana, Sanergy and Sanivation in Kenya, and Loowatt in Madagascar – are all piloting the provision of non-sewered sanitation to households through container-based sanitation (CBS). The CBS approach promotes toilets that safely contain waste for hygienic servicing, decentralised treatment, and waste-to-value systems that convert human waste into energy, fertilizer and other byproducts.

CBS solutions today present the most viable alternative for the rapidly growing number of urban areas in need of better sanitation solutions. They solve the intractable problem of pit emptying. And at their best, CBS systems can provide great toilets along with safe, hygienic methods of moving waste from toilets to value-generating treatment systems.


Waste to Value

Waste to value has been presented as an exciting panacea. It’s generally assumed that if we turn waste into energy, fertiliser, even chicken feed, infrastructure will pop up everywhere because it’s profitable.

But if only it were that simple! Pilot projects in developing countries have shown that although waste to value plays an important role in supporting sustainability, it’s unlikely to create end-to-end profitable systems on the time horizons expected by traditional investors.

Access to land for treatment facilities that is adequately near to customers and large enough to support composting at scale is the first difficult hurdle. Treatment facilities then take time to build and are required before a household is even served. Responsibly growing a customer base to several thousand, for services to break even, takes years. Marketing and selling of byproducts derived from faecal sludge requires rigorous testing, education and marketing efforts to build demand.


Blended Models and Partnerships

The global sanitation crisis is too big for any one organisation to address on its own, and the sanitation value chain is too broad to complete without partnerships. Along with better technologies, blended business models are needed that bring together the efficiency in operations of the private sector coupled with support from public entities.

Governments and large donor agencies have a role to play in creating the fertile ground required for market-based approaches to sanitation. Productive efforts can include: assisting with access to land or waste treatment facilities, facilitating concession agreements that protect service providers’ right to operate, providing subsidy to serve the poorest of the poor, and creating result-based-financing tied to safe waste treatment. Improving the operating conditions and clarifying risks for sanitation will also crucially help to drive commercial investment.

In the development sector’s race to provide global access to sustainable sanitation services as part of SDG 6, we shouldn’t forget The Big Necessity. The allure of profitable waste enterprises, and the slim margins associated with running a logistics business, should not be used as a reason to perpetuate the current double standard in sanitation: Everyone deserves a clean and pleasant place to do their business.


Virginia Gardiner is the inventor of the Loowatt toilet system. 

Photos courtesy of Loowatt



Environment, Health Care, Social Enterprise, WASH
Base of the Pyramid, business development, infectious diseases, public health, social enterprise