It’s World Toilet Day so the world is awash with potty humor, bizarre videos and otherwise earnest organizations giddily celebrating the use of obscenity or fart jokes in support of saving lives.
This is the first official World Toilet Day, at least insofar as the United Nations is concerned. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said today, the goal is to draw attention to the fact that 2.5 billion people are endangered by lack of safe sanitation – an inequity that contributes to many water-borne illnesses and deaths around the world. Diarrhea, often caused by poor sanitation, kills some 800,000 annually, for example.
And it’s an economic burden as well: The World Bank estimates poor sanitation costs countries some $260 billion a year in lost productivity.
So, yes, shit is a serious global problem.
It’s not a new problem and was not a very popular problem – until toilets and poop were made sexy and fun a few years ago after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched its initiative to Re-Invent the Toilet. That set off a cascade of media coverage that has helped push sanitation higher up on the public’s radar screen as a critical need in the fight against poverty, diseases of poverty and inequity.
It also set off grumbling among some of the humanitarians or social entrepreneurs who have long worked in the water and sanitation field (they are inextricably linked) for being a simplistic techno-fix. A recent op-ed in the New York Times, Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet, is the latest example.
Yet even one of the leaders in this endeavor for the Gates Foundation says this isn’t really just about toilets.
“A lot of people think all we’re trying to do here is re-invent the toilet,” said Carl Hensman, who works in the philanthropy’s water, sanitation and hygiene program. “Bill is obviously a technology optimist who believes in bringing the scientific and engineering – and entrepreneurial spirit – to bear on these problems.”
But it’s not science and technology for the sake of using science and technology, Hensman said.
The Gates Foundation’s approach to the sanitation problem is a multi-pronged $84 million annual endeavor focused on best methods of disease prevention, water use, the environment, policy-setting and especially on transforming poop from a waste product into a resource – both for the poor and rich world.
“My personal goal is to turn shit into a commodity,” said Hensman.
Perhaps the over-arching motto for the Gates Foundation – “Every life has equal value” – should be modified by program area. Hensman’s program could sport the motto: “Every shit has value.”
Finding a better toilet is a focal point for many of the foundation’s goals on sanitation, he said, but the re-invention angle represents only about 15 percent of what the Gates Foundation is spending on the problem of poop.
“We are trying to juggle all of the issues at hand here,” he said. Fecal sludge (the technical term) in many parts of the developing world contain disease-causing microorganisms that the rich world doesn’t deal with anymore, Hensman said.
The Gates Foundation, contrary to some of its critics, is exploring composting as a means to deal with all this shit, he said. But in poor communities to make it safe requires compost kept at fairly high temperatures for days on end. Composting also takes up space and land, in these communities, is often hard to come by.
Finding a waterless toilet is of interest well beyond poor countries, Hensman said. Seattle deals with its poop by the standard (and ancient) system of sewer pipes – a system that costs about $300 million per year, requires hundreds of workers to manage and depends upon each person using nearly 4,800 gallons of drinking water per year to flush their poop.
“That’s just not feasible for most communities in the developing world,” he said. One person’s dried fecal matter for a year could fit into a small suitcase, Hensman said, and be much more easily disposed of in a way that is both cheaper and better for the environment. Conversely, he said, it’s hardly a bold new concept to compost sewage waste for use as fertilizer – or as an energy resource.
“Do you know about those urine-powered mobile phones?” he asked. Here’s a link to that project Hensman provided, and a video below.
The Church of England, which has a lot of its parishes on rickety septic systems, and the state of Alaska, which is already spending $660 million on an initiative to promote a ‘decentralized’ approach to dealing with shit, have both approached the Gates Foundation for assistance with finding a new approach to sanitation. The US military has also taken an interest in their work.
“This isn’t just us; The appetite is there for a new and better toilet,” Hensman said.
I’m not sure I would have put it that way. But the point is that this isn’t just about the toilet. The effort to find a better toilet is a proxy for what could be shaping up to become a revolution in how we deal with one of the most fundamental features of life on the planet. Shit. Some day, perhaps, it won’t be something disgusting or fodder for adolescent humor. If Hensman has its way, shit will have value.