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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Bill Gates's Potty Obsession

Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he’s flushing over $40 million down the toilet – or rather, into an effort to reinvent it.

  • July 29, 2011

These days, Bill Gates spends a lot of time thinking about poop.

Specifically, he’s worried about the diseases it causes in the developing world. If you’re reading this blog, odds are that you are in the lucky 1/3 of the world’s population with access to flushable toilets. Though latrines are ancient, it was this flushing model that arose in Europe in the 18th and 19th century and, in the process, helped diminish or eliminate many diseases borne in fecal matter. Unfortunately, though, the flush toilet isn’t a model that’s easily replicable in many of the world’s regions that could now use it most. It relies on large amounts of water and extensive infrastructure. Which is why Bill Gates can’t get his mind out of the toilet.

Now he’s planning to flush a whole lot of money into toilet R&D – $41.5 million worth, to be exact, in grants his foundation announced last week. Said the foundation’s Global Development Program chief, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, at a conference in Kigali, “No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet. But it did not go far enough…What we need are new approaches. New ideas. In short, we need to reinvent the toilet.”

Where exactly are all those millions headed? Here are a few examples: $12 million is going to the African Development Bank’s “African Water Facility” projects, various sanitation pilot projects that aim to bring “fecal sludge management services” to 1.5 million urban poor in sub-Saharan Africa. $10 million is going to a German-Kenyan collaboration that aims to “scale up sustainable sanitation services for up to 800,000 people and water services for up to 200,000 residents in low-income urban areas in Kenya.” $8 million is headed to the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, hoping to steer the curriculum there towards considerations for the poor, while another $8.5 million is going to USAID’s “WASH for Life” program.

And although it represents one of the smaller commitments, dollar for dollar, the most intriguing investment of the foundation is the $3 million it’s directing to what it calls the “Reinventing the Toilet Challenge.” Eight global universities – among them CalTech, Stanford, Delft University of Technology, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal – have received grants as part of a challenge to “reinvent the toilet as a stand-alone unit without piped-in water, a sewer connection, or outside electricity—all for less than 5 cents a day.”

The ideas generated thus far are already fascinating. Some researchers think we could extract drinking water from human waste (something NASA’s already looking into). Others are interested in creating “dry toilets” that are water free and separate urine from excrement so as to dry the latter. Other proposals go even futher: According to Die Welt, some researchers would like to turn stool into compost or fertilizer; according to The Engineer, Delft University thinks it can use microwave-enabled toilets to transform excrement into electricity. Why flush away waste, when you could profit from it?

A toilet refresh has been on Gates’s mind for a long time, in fact; it was something he was harping on at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, CA, about a year ago. “We’re gonna have a breakthrough in the latrines,” he promised then, though he also noted, “When it comes to things like investing in new toilets, not much money goes into that.”

No longer. As a wonderfully frank video recently put out by the Gates Foundation exhorts: “Let’s get our sh*t together, and do it.”

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