By Claudia Rowe, Humanosphere correspondent
Amid royalty and other international dignitaries, Bill Gates took to the podium today to discuss feces.
With a few requisite smiles of embarrassment, the Microsoft founder announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will donate a total of $3.6 million in grants and prize money to researchers searching for answers to handling defecation in the developing world.
Engineers at the California Institute of Technology took the top prize at Gates’ Reinventing the Toilet competition, a $100,000 grant to continue work on a solar-powered commode that generates hydrogen and electricity.
Other exhibitors offered technologies employing worms and larvae to convert waste into high-protein animal feed; mineralizing sewage into electrical power; and “gasifying” feces with microwaves.
Gates said the central aim of his entire career has been encouraging such “breakthrough innovations.”
Toilets are not sexy
In the case of toilets, these advances have been a long time coming. Human waste disposal has changed little since Alexander Cummings, a watchmaker, invented the first flush toilet in Scotland in 1775. And Cummings’ invention is still largely unknown in the developing world, where open defecation is often the norm, largely because of sewage system costs.
“This whole area is kind of ignored,” Gates told a standing room-only crowd of international journalists, engineers and scientists. “There are not that many milestones – maybe just a handle, or toilet paper rolls.”
Yet the problem of human waste disposal now plagues 40 percent of the world’s population – some 2.5 billion people – causing disease, degraded quality of life and a host of environmental problems.
“This is a challenge that holds human development hostage,” agreed the Prince of Orange, chair of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. “Sanitation is arguably the most off-track” of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals.
The reason? Put simply, said the prince, toilets are not sexy.
“Politicians, leaders and people in general worldwide don’t like to be associated with toilets.”
Oil and mining but not toilets
The foundation’s 35 exhibits on new ways to address poop generated obvious excitement, yet the inventors and government ministers winced a bit when questioned on a less-acknowledged fly in the proverbial ointment.
“In terms of cost, we’re not yet there,” sighed Sylvain Usher, secretary general of the African Water Association in Ivory Coast, where students in rural schools have no toilets to use during the day.
Inventors had been told to aim for technologies that might be implemented for about 5-cents a day. But the first-place prototype would cost a prohibitive $1,000 to install in a single-family home, estimated professor Michael Hoffmann, who helped invent it.
Therein lay the rub: convincing governments and policy-makers to look beyond technology itself and invest in sanitation.
“Like the prince said, politicians like to talk about oil, petrol, mining,” Usher said. “They don’t want to talk about toilets.”