Nobody wants to drink toilet water, except Bill Gates

The unease on the face of Bill Gates is evident as the faucet fills his glass with water. After full, he does not hesitate to take a tiny sip from the glass.

“It’s water,” he says before letting out a big laugh.

Yes, it was clean water. A few minutes prior that same water was human waste. Bill Gates recorded a video touting one of his new favorite innovations – the OmniProcessor. An ambiguous name for a device that converts shit into clean drinking water. Gates has high hopes that such a process could be used to link sanitation and clean water in order address water shortages faced by people around the world.

The hulking machine presents what might be the future of water and sanitation – assuming everyone else will drink their own processed waste. Enter the evidence. Based on a new study, Americans are not too keen on the idea of drinking recycled waste water. The research, published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, featured surveys of adults from five cities and college students. The surveys found that 13 percent of people flatly refused, 38 percent said they were uncertain and 49 percent said they would give it a try.

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The numbers alone are slightly encouraging for Gates. The tongue-in-cheek headline belies the fact that there are some people who are OK with drinking cleaned waste water that are not named Bill Gates. But willingness to try is not the same as accepting as a significant form of drinking water.

The research team, led by Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania, found that explaining to people the process of cleaning the waste water and it was in fact actually cleaner than drinking water did not help change people’s minds. The idea just grosses-out some people, no matter the evidence or explanation.

“It is clear that some opponents of recycled water are essentially opposed to it in principle  – it is like a moral stance. This is reminiscent of a minority of supporters of naturalness, for whom natural preference is ideational, and not subject to counter-evidence,” wrote Rozin and his co-authors.

The Omniprocessor (Credit: Gates Notes)

The Omniprocessor (Credit: Gates Notes)

The OmniProcessor is the product of the Washington-based engineering company Janicki Bioenergy. It uses the energy produced by the conversion of the waste into water to power itself. For Gates, this represents not only an avenue for producing clean water, but an opportunity to reinvent waste management in low-resource settings. Things like the OmniProcessor could be built, as opposed to the traditional sewage treatment plants seen throughout the United States.

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There are plans to pilot it in Dakar, Senegal, this year.

“The water tasted as good as any I’ve had out of a bottle. And having studied the engineering behind it, I would happily drink it every day. It’s that safe,” wrote Gates about the experience in his blog.

The technology appears to be making good on converting waste water to clean drinking water. Gates says he is ready to start drinking it. He just has to start convincing everyone else.

HT The New Yorker for sharing the study

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.