“Next-generation” toilets showcased at Gates Foundation

In June 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded eight universities grants of approximately $400,000 to leverage, in one year, advances in science and technology to create a waterless, hygienic toilet that is safe and affordable for people in the developing world.

Bill Gates with a researcher from California Institute of Technology at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle on August 14, 2012. (src: http://www.gatesfoundation.org)

On August 14th and 15th 2012, the Gates Foundation hosted the Reinvent the Toilet Fair to showcase the work of these teams and awarded the first winners of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge:

1st prize:
A team from the California Institute of Technology won the top prize of $100,000 for a self-contained, solar-powered toilet and wastewater treatment system.

In this system, a solar panel produces power for an electrochemical reactor that is designed to break down water and human waste into hydrogen gas. The gas can then be stored for use in hydrogen fuel cells to provide a backup energy source for nighttime operation or use under low-sunlight conditions. (src & image credits)

Update: a video is available that describes how this “Self-Contained, PV-Powered Domestic Toilet and Wastewater Treatment System” works:

“They would repurpose the solar panels and batteries to powering TVs and charging cell phones and go back to shovels for their sanitary needs”, says one commentator on YouTube.

2nd prize:
A group from Loughborough University in the U.K. took second place for a toilet that transforms faeces into a biological charcoal (biochar) through hydrothermal carbonization (decomposition at high temperatures without oxygen and in water) of faecal sludge.
The proposed system will be powered from heat generated by combusting the produced biochar and will be designed to recover water and salts from faeces and urine. (src & image credits)

3rd prize:
A group of chemical engineers from University of Toronto, Canada developed a system which sanitizes waste within 24 hours:
It’s a technology for treating solid waste streams through mechanical dehydration and smoldering (low-temperature, flameless combustion) that will sanitize faeces within 24 hours. Urine will be passed through a sand filter and disinfected with ultra-violet light. (src & image credits)

The press release also included the winners of round 2 – a much debated challenge as it included a requirement for “prototyping and testing entirely stand-alone, self-contained, practical sanitation modules which intake bodily wastes and swiftly dispose of them without any incoming water piping, outgoing sewer piping or electric or gas utility services”.

Reinvent the Toilet Challenge Round 2 Winners

Cranfield University
This nearly $810,000 grant will help develop a prototype toilet that removes water from human waste and vaporizes it using a hand-operated vacuum pump and a unique membrane system. The remaining solids are turned into fuel that can also be used as fertilizer. The water vapor is condensed and can be used for washing, or irrigation.
Contact: Fiona Siebrits/ +44 (0) 1234 758040 / f.c.siebrits at cranfield.ac.uk

Eram Scientific Solutions Private Limited
A grant of more than $450,000 will make public toilets more accessible to the urban poor via the eco-friendly and hygienic “eToilet.”
Contact: Manohar Varghese / +91 9747060700 / manohar at eramscientific.com

RTI International
This $1.3 million grant will fund the development of a self-contained toilet system that disinfects liquid waste and turns solid waste into fuel or electricity through a revolutionary new biomass energy conversion unit.
Contact: Lisa Bistreich-Wolfe / +1 919.316.3596 / lbistreich at rti.org

University of Colorado Boulder
A nearly $780,000 grant will help develop a solar toilet that uses concentrated sunlight, directed and focused with a solar dish and concentrator, to disinfect liquid-solid waste and produce biological charcoal (biochar) that can be used as a replacement for wood charcoal or chemical fertilizers.
Contact: Karl Linden / +1 303 302 0188/ Carol Rowe / +1 303 492 7426 / Carol.Rowe at colorado.edu

Also, an interesting comment on Bill Gates’ blog post “Inventing a Toilet for the 21st Century” caught my attention as it has some interesting arguments:
“…(…) the challenge is more about planning, management, planning, financing, energy use/sourcing (…), costs, implementation, and, in more developed regions, dealing with tech verifications costs and regulatory issues. Technology is not the first deficiency in promoting effective sanitation. (…) many toilet innovations do not make it to market because the tech verification costs (NSF, etc.) costs $40,000+ and testing programs either do not address new configurations (such as 2-drain toilets) and are too expensive. Add to that arbitrary conventions, such as the illogical traditional siting of the toilet drain pipe in the U.S., which forces the use of higher flush volumes, and you get a stalled innovation market. (…).”

So, obviously, there’s much more to the picture than a reinvented toilet system alone. “A big part of the challenge is technological.”, writes Bill Gates on his blog. And the publicity the BMGF has brought to the sanitation sector in the past few years is truly immense. “We also have to work closely with governments, businesses, and communities to stimulate demand for better sanitation, encourage investment, and create supportive public policies that will allow these innovative solutions to succeed.”, he argues. Well, exactly.

And the best part? All of the future technologies aren’t limited to some “developing” countries only. It’s a global issue, and I am glad that someone as prominent as Bill Gates or Prince Willem-Alexander are promoting our core issue here. Great stuff!

Update: here’s a full list of all exhibitors during the Reinvent the Toilet Fair (thx, Carol!).

How about a Cradle2Cradle certification for toilets?

UDDTs in Ukunda, KenyaYou may or may not have heard of the Cradle to Cradle® design concept – an approach to environmental engineering where materials flows are analysed and optimized to enhance the quality of products for the user so that they are more practical for the user, healthier for everyone affected by the product, and beneficial for the economy and the environment.

Quality enhancement is achieved by focusing on three innovation principles:

  1. Everything is designed to be a nutrient for something else (waste = food)
  2. Use (of) renewable energy produced from current solar income
  3. Support diversity including conceptual, cultural and biodiversity.

A Cradle to Cradle trade fair, held in 2008 in Frankfurt, Germany, already showed C2C products and concepts – mainly from US, Dutch and Austrian manufacturers. This new design concept may just be one side of the medal – the other one being that William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the two inventors behind Cradle to Cradle, actually took this a step further and created a certification: the Cradle to Cradle® Certification.

Now, my question to you, dear readers, is: what do you think – would it make sense to obtain such a C2C certification for one of the existing or a future sanitation (toilet) system?

My assumption as someone who has been active in the field of sustainable sanitation is that most activists in this sector are scientists, who have in the past missed to really market their approaches. It’s because they are mainly scientists and only sometimes business people, where the creation of a problem-to-be-analyzed is more attractive than a marketable solution. This may of course be only one out of many other reasons why sanitation as such has been so neglected as an important issue for every human on this planet (don’t get me started on the public toilets situation in most countries…).

I am a great fan of the “Reinventing the Toilet“-approach, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as I believe that real acceptance of reuse-orientated sanitation systems in the developing world will only be possible when the rest of the developed world also starts using a reinvented type of toilets.

Also, a good product may also be made of high quality materials (which could then be recycled, thus kept in a technical loop) and I can also imagine a different type of ownership for the 21st century – where products aren’t “owned” by their users, but instead leased for a period of 15-20 years. This would enable a much more natural recycling where older products would just be given back to the manufacturer.

So the question really is: would such a C2C certification be a catalyst within the redesign process, and would it be an ultimate marketing tool that would also help changing the general perception of toilets (as a taboo that no one likes to talk about)?

What do you think?

Photo credit: UDDTs in a school in Ukunda, Kenya, by Engineers without borders. Taken from the (CC)-licensed Sustainable Sanitation photo collection on Flickr.

Who Gives A Crap

The good part about running a blog instead of being a journalist is that you can write about stuff you really like and also insert your own opinion as well as asking your readers for their comments. This obviously happens outside the conventional (dev aid) world with its often streamlined, corporate communication policies which sometimes avoid mentioning open issues like the following initiative which I read about today in the recommendable EcoSanRes mailing list.

If you’re interested in sustainable sanitation issues, make sure not to miss out this valuable exchange on first hand experiences with participants from all over the world. Yes, it’s just an old-fashioned mailing list that will sometimes clog up your inbox, but it’s the tool people use to communicate (hello 2010, hello RSS feeds, hello blogs, hello Facebook, hello Twitter, hello LinkedIn/Xing…).

You’ll notice that I took this wonderful headline as an opportunity to include my 2c in the beginning because it’s something I’ve been meaning to mention on this blog for a long time. Also, if YOU feel like there’s a story that needs to be published here, please feel free to contact me and I will have a look at it. Thank you!

Now back to the main topic: “Who Gives A Crap“.

Who Gives A Crap actually is a very interesting and thought-provoking initiative that aims to support water & sanitation projects in the developing world via the sale of sustainable toilet paper.

Yes, this may sound like a joke because a) what’s (environmentally) “sustainable toilet paper”?, b) why only focus on developing countries? (~ developing in which sense? within the watsan/sanwat sector? hmm..) and c) the guys behind this are otherwise busy running “a website that fundraises for development aid organisations using internet advertising”.

Nevertheless, as the distinguished Professor Ralf Otterpohl from the Institute of Wastewater Management and Water Protection @ Technische Universität Hamburg-Harburg (Germany), pointed out in an e-mail reply today (on this said mailing list): [they are] “…touching an important issue. The cultural gap between washers and wipers shows that both sides are doing something strange.”

I couldn’t agree more. Both, using only dry paper OR only water with your bare hands aren’t sustainable solutions. Yes, people have been practising each method for ages, and probably everyone has perfected his/her own method of anal cleansing over the years and will teach/show his/her children accordingly – but are these methods really sustainable?

Wet toilet paper? Ralf goes on arguing that wet toilet paper is “not suitable for wastewater treatment plants of vacuum blackwater systems”. Ha! I am a huge fan of vacuum systems and wet toilet paper, but this revelation is something new to me. No wonder the toilet paper on planes (=> vacuum toilets)  is so thin and instantly dissolves. Also note that there are different types of wet toilet paper.

So with the situation being that we currently have many different sanitation systems all over the world (toilets, and the wastewater treatment, if any), and humans that are increasingly travelling all over the globe within hours, expecting similar standards all over the world, it begs the question if there is one unique and sustainable system that will fit everyone…(?).

One system for everyone. One toilet system – seat or squatting toilet & one cleaning procedure –  but obviously different treatment systems, adopted to the local climate/conditions (water, electricity, maintenance, etc.). Will this be possible? And is it a desired solution?

I don’t know if these are the right questions to ask when it comes to the complex matter of sanitation & treatment options, but then: how come we’re looking for sustainable treatment and reuse options if the cleansing process itself – the “interface” between users and a toilet – already is an unsolved issue by itself? And also part of the problem?

Ralf Otterpohl goes on telling us about the Terra Preta Sanitation (TPS) that partly consists of a disposable “food-quality” cleaning cloth, moistured with a lactid acid bacteria. Hey, doesn’t that sound like the desired sustainable toilet paper? And “food-quality” already sounds like a very smart Cradle2Cradle approach.

Terra Preta Sanitation (TPS) is a low-cost dry sanitation system based on urine diversion and the addition of charcoal to the system that produces lasting and highly fertile soils with properties similar to the recently [re]discovered manmade Terra Preta (black soil) in the Amazon region. Through natural processes of lacto-fermentation (silage) and vermicomposting, fecal material is converted into Terra Preta like soils that can be utilized in (urban) agriculture and also act as a carbon sink. (source)

Terra Preta Sanitation, a system designed for use in urban areas, with a separate collection of used toilet paper in a bucket. I already like the concept and that it has been re-discovered as a traditional method.

Wait….! You were first talking about sustainable toilet paper and now you’ve switched to a sustainable treatment system for urban areas that generates fertile soils? How’s that supposed to mix up? And why should I Give A Crap??!

Because you should. It starts with eating and doesn’t stop when you go to the toilet. There needs to a working closing-the-loops system in place that helps us grow food and also provides a secure and comfortable way for hygiene standards. Wet toilet paper that adds value to a system, if you will.

Coming back to the video above: would you buy (any) sustainable toilet paper and fork out an extra dime for it?

And: would you be willing to switch your existing cleaning method for any new – better – option? (similar to the already popular & separate collection of glass, paper and bio waste, which also required some behaviour change…)

toilet signs & gender segmentation

wo-menSpeaking about sanitation, most people probably just think of toilets and how to improve on that. And while we rather think about the involved process engineering (aka the technical side) associated with this daily business, the toilet, it’s availability and cleanliness is what is seen by the majority.

It is against this background that I would like to forward you to this interesting post on gender and toilets (also here because of the additional comments) as there’s still a complete world full of such unsolved gender issues.

Fortunately, or at least that’s what I think, any debate on toilets (~sanitation, ~hygiene, ~privacy, ~comfort, etc.) is good & a way forward into the right direction. So if it takes a gender issue like the rather unfortunate (or not?) seperation into women’s and men’s washrooms for people to return talking about toilets, then we’re one step closer to an improved sanitation. Do you agree?

Ecosan Waterless Toilet System

Currently, the pursuit towards sanitation is one of the pressing issues around the world.

Have you ever come to a point where you are challenged with the recent issues on sanitation in the world? Have you ever asked yourself questions like: “How have I contributed to sanitation problems today?; How can I contribute in solving sanitation problems?; Am I an enemy of sanitation? ” Or perhaps you probably had ask more questions than me…

So much for that, I just want to share one video I found on the internet about Ecosan Waterless Toilets: