26 July 2011

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

When I read a headline last week about the Gates Foundation's effort to reinvent the toilet, I thought that sounded like a cool "green" project. Since we got all worked up about finding the best low-flow toilets for our house, I was excited to see what innovations might be on the horizon in this arena. With a word like "reinvent," it had to be something more than simply an even lower-flow toilet. A new take on composting toilets that non-hippies could get on board with, maybe? I don't know the numbers on how much water goes to flushing in Austin, in Texas, in the United States, or in the world, but I know it adds up. Reducing our total flush volume could go a long way toward our overall water needs.

But the Gates Foundation's mission is actually so much bigger and more important than that.

Their focus is on rethinking the toilet so that they don't need to be tied in to expensive plumbing infrastructure, which most of the world doesn't have and can't afford. ( And even if it were feasible to bring plumbing to the far corners of the world, all that today's toilets and the pipes that take waste away actually do is move waste from here to away, where it remains toxic...just farther away from where most of us live.) If there were a way to deal with human waste in third world countries, a host of diseases caused by unsanitary living conditions could be virtually eradicated.

The basic design of the toilets we all know and love (?) has been the standard for over 200 years. Obviously, they have improved over the years, and while they were once strictly for the rich, they are now available to virtually everyone in the developed world, getting them (and the required plumbing, and sufficient water) to the rest of the world just isn't a feasible goal. The Gates Foundation has granted over $40 million to eight universities to try to develop whole new methods of treating waste through reinvented toilets and waste management systems, and recipients of the grants are taking this challenge seriously. So far, efforts are underway to use a process of "dehydration, filtration, and smoldering" to sanitize waste, as well as various plans to turn waste into electricity. Read more about it here.

Now two more thoughts on related topics.

First, the Gates Foundation's initiative reminds me of One Laptop Per Child's equally awe-inspiring $100 laptop project, which sought to bring about the development of a viable $100 laptop design so that computers could be brought to students across the globe. Several good designs came out of the project, and the (extremely rugged) laptops have been finding their way into classrooms in the far corners of the world for the past few years.

Second, my best friend from college, Andrea, lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, in this sweet cabin...

...with an outhouse instead of an indoor bathroom. Yes, you read that right. An outhouse. Apparently it's a pretty fancy heated outhouse, but still. Fairbanks, which apparently has lots of houses with detached, heated outhouses (something about the ground being frozen, I think), can get down to, like, 20 degrees below during the winter, so heat in the 'house is pretty critical...especially in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, I bet Andrea still thinks twice about drinking anything in the evening. Maybe, after the Gates Foundation finishes distributing its reinvented toilet to the third world, they'll send one to Andrea.


  1. It can get way colder then -20 and stay there.

  2. True...I just checked Wikipedia, which says extreme lows in Fairbanks can reach sixty below. (I got a shiver just typing that.)