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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation challenges inventors to cut diarrheal infections and improve sanitation by reimagining the lowly loo, Elizabeth Nelson explains
Text by:Elizabeth Nelson

hether you prefer to do your business in the washroom, the bathroom, the bog, the dunny or the outhouse, the business is all the same. The extensive vernacular surrounding the toilet allows us to joke and distance ourselves from the unpleasant thought of poop. But, Bill and Melinda Gates have done the opposite. Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they have brought discussion of the toilet back into the classrooms and the laboratories of the world to do what hasn’t been done since 1775: drastically reinvent the toilet.

As part of their $370 million commitment to making a difference with water, sanitation and hygiene worldwide, the foundation has challenged universities worldwide to find a solution to one of the world’s biggest killers: diarrheal disease. The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 1.5 million children die of diarrheal disease and related infections each year. The Rehydration Project estimates that 3,338 children die every day, or 139 every hour. That means that in the time it takes you to read this article, approximately 6 children will have died.

The “Reinventing the Toilet” project hopes to help eliminate diarrheal infections caused by lack of sanitation. At present, it is estimated that 2.6 billion people lack access to sanitation and are either using unsafe toilets or defecating in the open. Part of the problem lies in their limited (or in some cases, lack of) access to running water and electricity and the prevalence of untreated sewage water and open latrines contaminating drinking water. The outline of the project is to supply people around the world with a clean, safe, affordable way to go to the bathroom in a place they feel comfortable, that ensures proper, safe treatment of waste, and supplies an extra source of energy and possibly drinking water.

On average, flush toilets cost approximately US$1,000 per person per year, including, electricity and plumbing, as well as the networks of sewers and treatment plants. This does not include the environmental impact and waste of resources. The new toilet must cost no more than $0.05 per user per day, which reduces the cost to just over $18 per year, and produces only organic materials that cause no environmental harm. The project also hopes to inspire local entrepreneurs to begin sanitary-based businesses based on the new and improved toilet. This project truly pushes the boundaries of the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.

With such restrictions of resources and such high expectations for the outcome, many termed the project, “the magic toilet”. Yet these seemingly impossible parameters have been met, and with gusto, from universities around the world. On August 14 and 15, 2012, the foundation hosted a fair where the competitors could showcase their designs. The result was an array of twenty-two inventive and complicated designs that approached the project from many different angles.

There were toilets that created electricity through “microwaving” the feces and others that created biological charcoal. Another notable design was from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which used black soldier-fly larvae to create colonies in the system that would produce animal feed.

Yet it was the California Institute of Technology that came away with $100,000 for its winning design. The toilet relies on solar power to perform all the functions within the limits prescribed and uses recovered water to flush the toilet. The processed fecal matter produces hydrogen gas, which is stored in onsite fuel cells that could later be used as backup energy or at night. The entire system is designed to be buried under conventional setups, ensuring the design is user-friendly.

The second prize of $60,000 went to Loughborough University, and the third prize of $40, 000 went to the University of Toronto. The judges were so impressed with the user interface from the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology and industrial design company EOOS that they awarded each $40,000 special recognition.

The innovation won’t stop at the competition. The grants awarded are intended for the schools to continue to improve their designs and to share inventions, ideas and inspirations to make a final product or products that can be implemented where they are needed most. Many interested in the project have considered expanding the project to possibly replace all existing latrines. The foundation hopes that in the next two to four years, these toilets will be tested and installed across the globe. The United Nations recognizes the right to clean water and sanitation as an essential human right. Fair and free access to a clean place to ‘go’ is clearly a big step in the right direction.




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Reinventing the Toilet .

Every day, thousands of children die because of unsanitary living situations. Many of these children don’t have access to clean water or a toilet. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hopes to reinvent the toilet, making it more affordable and eco-friendly around the world.

As part of their $370 million fund to improve water sanitation and hygiene, they challenged universities worldwide to help them solve this problem. The idea of the project is to create a clean, safe, affordable and environmentally friendly way for people to go to the bathroom and also supply an extra source of energy and possibly drinking water. On averageflush” toilets cost $1,000 per person per year, including, plumbing, electricity and the costs of the networks of sewers and treatment plants. That’s more than some people make in a year in some parts of the world! These kinds of toilets are not good for the environment and are a waste of resources. With the contest, the new “magic toilet” cannot cost more than $18 per person per year, and have zero negative impact on the environment !

While this seems impossible, many universities competed with innovative and creative designs. One competitor generated electricity by “microwavingfeces, while another created biological charcoal. However, the winner of the contest, and $100,000, was the California Technology Institute, whose design incorporated solar power to make the toilet work.

The Gate’s Foundation hopes that in two to four years “green”, sustainable toilets will be installed all around the world. This will help eliminate much disease and also provide a basic need that, all humans are entitled to. Whether you live in Europe, the Americas or Africa…don’t we all have the right to a clean bathroom and fresh drinking water?

 

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