Reinventing the toilet

During our trip to Japan last summer we encountered some interesting toilets. We hd herd that in Japan there were squatting toilets that were little more than a hole in the floor. We didn’t see that type of toilet in the early days of our visit, but did encounter them as we traveled. Most of the public restrooms that had that style also had the choice of a toilet where you sat as is common in our country. What impressed us was the number of toilets with all kinds of technology. Many toilets had water sprayers to clean where we use tissue. Others had heated seats. Quite a few had both. There were toilets that would weigh you as you sat on them. Some had elaborate control panels with multiple buttons that were a challenge to learn which to push for the various functions. For us, being used to the plumbing in our country, it was a bit strange to see toilets that were plugged into wall outlets. In general, it makes me a bit nervous to have electricity and plumbing mixed. and the plugs on most toilets had only two prongs, so I am confident that they didn’t have ground fault interrupt circuits as is not common in bathrooms and kitchens in the US.

Toilets are not something about which I’ve given much thought so I was a bit surprised at how much engineering and thought had been invested in the fixtures.

Several years ago my brother wrote an article about composting toilets and suggested that there were relatively simple solutions to disposal of human waste in locations that don’t have communal sewer systems. In most American cities we have systems that use a fair amount of clean water to flush waste and bacteria into treatment plants where the water is treated and cleaned. Sewer systems, however are expensive and as more and more people are living in urban areas without sewer and sanitation systems, the spread of disease from untreated sewage is a major world problem.

Thoughts of toilets came to my mind recently when I read an article about Billionaire philanthropist and founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, who was a keynote speaker at the Reinvented Toilet Expo event in Beijing, China. I didn’t even know there was such a conference, but apparently it was a big deal. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested more than $200 million on researching toilets over the last seven years. It is part of the foundation’s work to combat preventable disease.

The event was focused on technologies that were quite a bit different from the ultra-modern toilets we encountered in Japan. The twenty cutting-edge sanitation products on display at the Beijing conference focused on off-grid solutions. According to the World Health Organization, 2.3 billion people around the world still don’t have access to basic sanitation facilities. This can cause diseases such a cholera, diarrhea and dysentery. These diseases kill hundreds of thousands of people each year. The challenge is to design systems that process human waste without sewer systems.

One of the things that has been a part of my experience in the ministry is that congregations that I have served have needed new or remodeled bathrooms. Church buildings designed and built in the 1950’s mostly had what at the time was considered to be modern plumbing, but bathrooms were not designed with space for wheelchairs and walkers and created barriers for some people. In addition to the newer accessible bathrooms that were installed in the church we serve early in our tenure, we now have completed a family assist bathroom that includes a larger area for changing diapers, room and privacy for a person to assist another and even a shower that is installed without a lift to be accessible to those with mobility challenges. As a result of these projects, I have a fairly clear idea of how much money it costs to install new bathrooms in public buildings. We have averaged over $10,000 per stool in bathrooms in remodeled space. New construction is probably higher than that. And that cost doesn’t include the municipal infrastructure of water pipes, sewer lines, treatment plant, maintenance and other associated costs.

Many of the world’s people live in places where sewers hav not bee built and may not ever be built due to the lack of money to build them. The reinvented toilets demonstrated at the Beijing conference are projected to cost much less. Initially the cost will be around $500 per toilet, but it is hoped that mass production will result in decreasing costs as the number produced increases. The idea is to start with installations in public buildings and as more and more are installed and costs decline installation in private homes will follow.

What is being proposed is a bit more sophisticated, and a bit more expensive, than the simple composting toilets that are essentially a 5-gallon container with some peat moss that can be buried. The problem with that system is that most urban dwellers don’t have space to deal with the compost produced. At the Beijing conference toilets that used water in a closed system with filtration and recirculation and result in waste that is treated and free of harmful bacteria were showcased. These are the appliances that are being proposed for mass production.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a good organization to have behind the project. They are already operating in 130 countries around the world. They have huge financial resources. They are dedicated to helping to reduce human suffering and treat and prevent disease. It is god that they are working for solutions to these large problems.

Of course bathroom waste isn’t the only toxic stuff that humans release. Now if we could get some interest and investors lined up to come up with a solutions to toxic language such as hate speech and toxic actions such as violent crime. We could certainly use some inexpensive solutions to those problems as well.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!