How do you build a better toilet—one that's safe, cheap, and efficient enough to serve the 2.5 billion people who currently lack access to safe sanitation? It's a question that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has grappled with for years, offering grants to all sorts of initiatives that promise to one day improve the depressing statistics around toilet use. Sanitation-related diseases kill more people than malaria, measles, and HIV/AIDS combined, according to the CDC.
Over the past few years, 16 teams have received grants to rethink the toilet. In late March, the foundation announced the winners of its latest toilet-reinvention challenge: a group of six out-there prototype toilets from Indian researchers that will be at least partially funded by grants from the Gates Foundation.
In 2011, the Gates Foundation launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, which asked budding toilet researchers to come up with safe, cheap, and hygienic waterless toilets. The winner of the challenge, a team from Caltech, is testing its self-contained, off-grid toilet system in India (a detailed account of the team's progress is available here).
One of the prototype Caltech toilets made a pit stop at the Indian version of the Reinvent the Toilet Fair (the first was held in Seattle, Washington) in New Delhi. That's where the six winners of Reinvent the Toilet Challenge: India, were announced. They are:
- An electronic, off-grid toilet from the University of South Florida and Eram Scientific Solutions (the company behind eToilets) that is modular, solar-powered, and has an on-board waste processing. The Gates funding will go towards field testing of the toilet in a suburban slum (it is intended to be a public toilet).
- A proof of concept toilet from the Amrita School of Biotechnology that uses "viral agents to target and kill pathogens and odor-producing bacteria in fecal waste," according to a press release.
- Another proof-of-concept toilet, this time from Pradin Technologies, that uses ultrasound technology to cut down on a toilet's water use and "enhance the settling of fecal particles" in its storage tank.
- A project, developed by Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee and Fresh rooms Life Sciences, consisting of a container that cultivates Black Soldier Fly Larvae, which can turn human poop into useful products.
- A water-free toilet developed by the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai that uses an air-blower and a sand-like material to keep itself clean, removing flies and traces of odor.
- A toilet containing a new septic tank design that cuts down on pollutants, from BITS Pilani K.K. Birla Goa Campus, Ghent University, and Sustainable Biosolutions.
While the Gates Foundation is banking on the idea that these oftentimes pricey toilets will become more affordable, some people are skeptical of the entire Reinvent the Toilet enterprise. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Aditi Malhotra expresses the belief that "toilets need to be built, before being reinvented." She notes:
According to a government survey released in 2013, nearly 68% of households in the countryside do not have access to toilets. The 2011 census, the latest year for which data is available, found that more Indians have access to mobile phones than they do to toilets. The findings also said the situation was grimmer for 33 million lower-caste Dalit households, with 75% defecating in the open.
Reinventing the toilet may not solve the immediate problem of access, but if the Gates Foundation succeeds and technology prices drop, the toilets which are ultimately installed in new areas may be cleaner, more efficient, and even more environmentally friendly than anything that has come before. That is, of course, a big "if."