The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation held a “Reinvent the Toilet” fair August 14 and 15 in Seattle. According to a promotional video for the new sustainable toilet project and fair, hosted by Bill Gates, around 2.6 billion people have nowhere sanitary to go to the bathroom, leading to fecal matter entering water supplies, which quickly spreads to populations.
Children are especially affected by sanitation issues concerning clean water in some areas of the world. Yahoo! News notes that 1.5 million children under five die every year due to diarrhea and treatable diseases often associated with a lack of safe drinking water. The promotional video puts the current issues of sanitation most succinctly:
The flush toilet, as you and I know it, requires a massive amount of sewer infrastructure and immense amounts of water; two things increasingly hard to come by.
I agree that toilets need to be reconsidered, they do unfortunately use a ton of perfectly drinkable water and make that water non-potable. They also lack efficiency, an aspect of the current toilet design that has been around for decades now. So while in theory the fair was meant to be about how “developing countries” don’t have anywhere to put their waste, the issue is just as much about how wasteful current methods of waste management are in the United States and other consumer societies.
28 designs were shown at the fair and one design from the California Institute of Technology won out. The BBC reports that Professor Michael Hoffman and his team created a solar-powered toilet that actually generated hydrogen gas and electricity. The team won $100,000 for the innovation. The second and third place prizes went to Loughborough University from the UK and the University of Toronto in Canada, respectively. Both of those toilet designs actually produced clean water after it was used.
The competition demanded that the toilet design be operational without running water, electricity or any kind of septic system. The cost to run the toilet could be no more than five cents a day. The foundation sent out a challenge to universities a year ago to design these toilets and the teams were eager to participate. Bill Gates made a statement about why the project has been so central to his organization over the last few years:
Imagine what’s possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead…Many of these innovations will not only revolutionize sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on traditional flush toilets in wealthy nations.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has devoted $370 million to this sector of global development projects. The foundation has come under scrutiny from time to time, especially after the most recent World Population Day. The organization has also devoted resources to providing birth control to populations around the world, but the rhetoric that has been recently used on this topic could begin to have an undesired effect.
According to many critics, some populations might be singled out as in need of birth control, thereby enforcing a kind of selective birth control policy. Admittedly, the availability of more efficient toilets remains a much less controversial project, and one necessary on multiple levels, so there will probably be less debate about the viability of the new toilet project over time.
Photo Credit: Chris 73
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