Why we need to re-invent the toilet


I’d like to think I’m beyond giggling when I see “Synthetic Faeces Update” on a meeting agenda. But let’s face it, I’m not. At the foundation’s main campus in Seattle, Washington, we’re talking about “fake poop” quite a bit these days as we get ready to host the Reinvent the Toilet Fair on August 14 and 15.

We’ll be featuring toilet prototypes created over the last year by our grantees, some of which will be vying for the coveted “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge Award.”

The reinvented toilet is the brainchild of our Water, Sanitation & Hygiene program that aims to bring sanitation (i.e. toilets) to those who don’t have it and must resort to extremely unsanitary means (open defecation – as in doing it out in the open) to relieve themselves. And, to give these newfangled toilet prototypes a test drive while at the fair, we need synthetic faeces. About 50 gallons of it.

Why do we even need to reinvent the toilet? First, there hasn’t been much serious innovation in the flush toilet for nearly 200 years. In public health terms, the flush toilet has improved health immensely; it has done a phenomenal job saving lives by helping safely dispose of urine, faeces and nasty pathogens.

But, it uses a lot of water, and isn’t a realistic solution for people in the developing world, where pipes aren’t already under neighbourhoods to carry away the water and sewage, and there isn’t the money and electricity needed to treat sewage properly. Too many people still do not have access to a toilet. How many people? We’re talking about 2.5 billion people.

Here’s the theory behind the “reinvent the toilet” initiative: innovation in science and technology has done amazing things to help people lead better lives from the introduction of vaccines to prevent against deadly diseases, to the increasingly wide-spread use of mobile phones in remote areas of the world to share information, transfer money and even pay bills.

Why can’t that same creative thinking be used to solve the problem of dealing with human waste? We believe it can.

Imagine a toilet that isn’t connected to the sewer or electricity – one that takes waste and converts it to energy, is affordable for people in the developing world and is so fabulous that everyone will want to use it. These are the ideas the Reinvent the Toilet Fair is looking to highlight.

But I digress from the topic of synthetic faeces (and yes, I did just write that without snickering). Researchers from around the globe are bringing their reinvented toilet prototypes to the fair, and we need synthetic faeces for the demonstrations. (And no, we can’t use real faeces). Figuring out how much to order is just one part.

The other piece of the puzzle is answering questions from exhibitors who need to know all about the “fake poop”: What’s the density? What’s the recipe? What stool size will you be giving us? Does it contain the right amount of energy? (I’m not really sure what that means, but it’s somehow important.) And, finally, will it have an odour?

We know that these “commode creators” are hard at work right now. We’ll be writing blog posts here at Impatient Optimists and at partner publications around the web over the next few weeks about the reinvented toilet to get the perspectives on this fascinating issue from environmentalists, social good-doers, technologists and others, so stay tuned.

And, for those inquiring minds, what is synthetic faeces made of? The recipe for the fair is simply soybean paste and rice -there’s a more complex recipe for hard-core research & development work. Finally, no, the synthetic faeces won’t be scented – even my great recommendation for rose-scented fake poop didn’t fly!

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