Rethinking the Toilet on World Toilet Day

Written by Lloyd Atler

In 1925, Gandhi said “Sanitation is more important than independence.” Yet today, one in three people in the world do not have access to a safe and clean toilet. According to the World Toilet Day website:

Illnesses that are a direct result of bad sanitation affect the quality of life of millions of people around the world, especially children. Diarrhoeal diseases are the second most common cause of death of young children in developing countries, killing more than HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined, and resulting in 1 death every 20 seconds.

It isn’t just about health either, but also about poverty.

There is a strong link between the absence of good sanitation and poverty. The economic growth in Europe and North America went hand-in-hand when the sanitary conditions improved markedly, resulting in individual health gains and increased labour productivity. Toilets are a symbol of better health, higher income, more education, higher social status and a cleaner living environment.

The answer isn’t necessarily high-tech, either. I took a lot of abuse for my opinions on Bill Gates’s toilet of choice and am backed up in the New York Times today by Jason Kass of Toilets for People:

Just imagine the fate of a high-tech toilet in one of these communities. What happens if the unique membrane systems get clogged? Or if the supercritical water vessel or the hydrothermal carbonization tank leaks, or worse, explodes? Or what if one of the impoverished residents realizes the device is worth more than a year’s earnings and decides to steal it? If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything, it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work.

He concludes with a plea for simplicity (and composting toilets):

If we embrace these low-tech toilets, we’ll be on the right track to getting 2.5 billion people one step closer to a safe, clean, comfortable and affordable toilet of their own. That’s something worth celebrating this World Toilet Day.

But even if you have a toilet, you have a problem.

Even in the two thirds of the planet that do have clean and safe toilets, they are, dare I say, still crappy. They are extraordinarily wasteful of resources, turning drinking water and useful stuff like phosphorus and fertilizer into useless sewage.

The whole world needs better toilets. Here is a roundup of some of our coverage on the subject:

Poop-powered sewage treatment system fits in a shipping container

Here’s one of the super high tech supercritical oxidizing toilet ideas that Jason Kass criticizes:

Similar to waste incineration, this supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) process produces heat, despite the presence of water. Some of this heat can be used to preheat the incoming sewage to supercritical temperatures, eliminating the need for an external heat source to sustain supercritical combustion once it is has begun. The remaining hot water may be supplied to the community directly or used to power an electrical generator.

I thought it was overcomplicated, but did not want to appear supercritical.

Crapping on Bill Gates Reinvent the Toilet Winner

It really isn’t a toilet; that sits on top and is conventional. What is going on here is a really complicated solar powered sewage treatment system. “This toilet isn’t dealing with waste, it is dealing with the medium that is moving the waste, the flushing water.”

Yes, Civilized People DO Have Composting Toilets in Their Homes

When I first started talking about the idea of going “off-pipe” and bringing composting toilets into our homes, commenters scoffed, saying: “Composting toilets are NEVER going to make it into the main stream market. Debating it is silly.” And also “No one will want this inside their house. I know this, because I still have a few teeth in my head and a few friends in town.” But lots of people do; last year I stayed in Laurence Grant’s house near St. Thomas, Ontario, which has a composting toilet as its only facility. I recently asked him how long he had been using it and when he said “seventeen years,” I asked him to write about the experience.

Sanergy Is Putting a Price on Poop and Cleaning Up in Kenya

There’s money in shit. You can build an economy around it, put people to work, generate power, make fertilizer. All by putting a price on poop.

Are Flush Toilets Appropriate in Developing Countries?

While visiting Ecuador with the Rainforest Alliance, I expected to see a lot of outhouses. Instead, I found an extraordinary infrastructure of flush toilets in the usual public places, but also beside almost every home and farm in Amazonia. But is it appropriate technology?

Singapore University Puts Together the Plumbing System that Everyone Should Be Using

It is a wonderful urine-separating, vacuum-powered system that does what every toilet should do.

As one Swedish researcher noted, “Don’t mix what God separates.” Poop without a lot of water or urine makes for ” richer sludge and produces more methane, which can be turned into gas or electricity.” We are approaching Peak Phosphorus and will need all the fertilizer from pee that we can get.

This post was originally published in TreeHugger

Photo Credits: Lloyd Atler, Michael Hoffman via YouTube, Duke University, Laurence Grant, Science Daily, Sanergy, Jon Fisher


Glen Venezio
Glen Venezio4 years ago

thank you for posting this! I once lived in the Republic of Kiribati, in the central Pacific ocean, and most of the population was toileting in the lagoon, little by little things are changing there and everywhere.

Michael H.
Mike H4 years ago

Thanks for sharing this

Andrew Pawley
Past Member 4 years ago

Surprising topic but an interesting read. Much to think about.

Sue Matheson
Sue Matheson4 years ago


D Hline Oo
D Hline Oo4 years ago

Noted info.

Christina Robertson
Tina Robertson4 years ago

Love this story, it reminds of when I was in Kenya in 1984. After a whole days journey travelling on a dry, dusty dirt road, we came to a cross road where there was a bus stop underneath a large Coca Cola bottle cap sign that you could see as a red dot for miles. To my delight there was also a restaurant of sorts with a sign that said "Indoor Lavatory"....this thrilled me more than the small diner, for up until this time we were relieving ourselves behind the "catch-me-bushes". On entering the Lavatory,there were three cubicles, with three modern toilets and toilet paper ( a little on the rough side but nevertheless paper).
After using the toilet I discovered that there was no flush mechanism and on further inspection realized that it was just a straight hole directly from the ceramic bowl, down into a metal drum, where I suppose it was empty everyday. It was so unusual to find a toilet anywhere in Tanzania, Kenya or Somalia, unless you were in a major city. It was the highlight of the 3 day trip !

Julie C.
Julie C4 years ago

I love this story. People don't want to think about what comes out of our bodies, but we have to manage it like everything else. Toilets really aren't much different than what the Romans used, and a completely new take on them like Singapore University came up with is awesome. You guys rock!

Dale O.

Speaking of in the toilet - my computer hard drive is fried - I am on some other computer elsewhere which says 'The URL you are attempting to access has been blocked. Your organization's policy prohibits accessing this web site.' It is blocking access to my group of feedback and support, I can't get in there from I am posting here...toilets seem to be a good thread for a fried hard drive.

Freida Vb
G Vb4 years ago

If it promotes saving water,fertilizing the land for better vegetation, or, producing natural gas why not?

criss s.
criss s4 years ago