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Designing a low cost toilet

In an effort to develop “next-generation” toilets that will deliver sustainable sanitation to the 2.5 billion people worldwide, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation felicitated three universities under the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge – a two-day event held at the foundation’s headquarters in Seattle on August 14 and 15. Universities were awarded prizes for coming up with solutions to capture and process human waste and transform it into useful resources. The event saw the participation from 29 countries showcasing their prototypes.

The winners included California Institute of Technology, USA received $100,000 as the first prize for designing a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity; Loughborough University, UK, won $60,000 as the second place prize for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals and clean water; and University of Toronto, Canada, won the third prize of $40,000 for a toilet that sanitizes faeces & urine and recovers resources and clean water. A special recognition was awarded to Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) and EOOS for their outstanding design of a toilet user-interface.

These “next-generation” toilets won the prestigious “Reinvent the Toilet” challenge, which was floated by IT czar-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates. ‘Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ “ultimate dream” is low-cost toilets.

Most of the prototypes that were on display had the capacity to turn solid waste into energy. Many recycled waste into other usable substances such as animal feed, water for irrigation, or even just energy and water to run their own systems. Some, like the winning project from Caltech, used chemistry and engineering to completely transform the waste. During his recent visit to India, Gates expressed that reinventing a toilet that has an operational cost of $0.05 per user, per day, and a contraption that does not rely on water to flush waste and does not discharge pollutants was his latest mission. According to him, no innovation in 200 years has saved more lives than a toilet. In India alone, 46.9% of the total 246.6 million households have toilets at home. Of the rest, 3.2% use public toilets. If that was less, 49.8% use open space for defecation.

Gates felt that all other modes save flush toilet are vastly inferior. “One of my ultimate dreams is to reinvent the toilet – find a cheaper alternative to the flush toilet that does not require running water, has smell characteristics better than flush toilet and cheaper to build,” he had said.

The UN estimates disease caused by unsafe sanitation results in about half the hospitalizations in the developing world. About 1.5 million children die each year from diarrheal disease. Reinventing the toilet has the potential to improve lives as well as the environment. Flush toilets waste tons of potable drinking water each year, fail to recapture reusable resources like the potential energy in solid waste and are simply impractical in many places. Gates predicted the result of this project would reach beyond the developing world. If we do it right, there is every possibility that some of these designs would also be solutions for rich and middle-income countries, Gates added.

Improving access to sanitation can also bring substantial economic benefits. According to the World Health Organization, improved sanitation delivers up to $9 in social and economic benefits for every $1 invested because it increases productivity, reduces healthcare costs, and prevents illness, disability, and early death. Other projects featured at the fair include better ways to empty latrines, user-centered designs for public toilet facilities, and insect-based latrines that decompose faeces faster.

 

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