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Social Issues
IMPROVE IT: World Toilet Day Edition
November 19, 2011
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Today is World Toilet Day (WTD). And although that may sound like a joke, it's actually deadly serious: 40% of the world's population lives without access to toilets. That's 2.6 billion people without adequate sanitation - a dire predicament that can lead to terrible health problems, disease and death. Since 2001, WTD has been a day to break down the taboo of talking about toilets so that the situation can be improved.

The next question is: how? The problem of creating more sanitary conditions, and offering people in developing nations a safe and healthy way to do their business, has preoccupied some researchers and inventors for a while now. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation brought the issue to the fore when they announced their 'Reinventing the Toilet Challenge' in July 2011. Here are some of the great ideas that have grown out of that initiative, as well as some independent organizations hard at work on better ways to deal with human waste:

Bag It Up

The Peepoo, as its name suggests, is a bag designed for a single purpose: collecting human waste. The company that manufactures the bags is called Peepoople. Founded in 2006 in Sweden, the company's goal was to offer people in areas without toilets a water-free option to safely and sanitarily dispose of their feces and urine.

So how does it work? The Peepoo bag contains Urea, which is a common fertilizer. When it comes into contact with feces and urine, it breaks them down into ammonia and carbonate, rendering organisms that produce diseases inactive within 2-4 weeks. Then, the bags biodegrade, leaving behind safe fertilizer for plants and crops. It's a simple solution, but it's been getting attention from some major organizations: Oxfam GB field tested the Peepoo in January, 2010 following the earthquake in Haiti.

Dry It, Filter It, Smoke It

Professor Yu-Ling Cheng Discusses the Toilet Challenge from U of T Engineering on Vimeo.

At the University of Toronto, one recipient of a $400,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the Centre for Global Engineering, led by director Yu-Ling Cheng. Their plan is to dry the waste, disinfect with ultraviolet light, and then smoulder the solid waste like charcoal briquettes in a barbecue. And the best part is, the whole process takes less than 24 hours, unlike many solutions that rely on composting.

At the moment, the U of T team isn't providing too many more details about their design, in order to ensure that interested businesses can be confident of making a profit if they start manufacturing them.

Microwave It
With the help of another $400,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Assistant Professor of Process Intensification Georgios Stefanidis at the Delft University of Technology is working on an alternative approach to the toilet to serve those without access to clean water. His plan? Use microwave technology to turn human waste into electricity.

Step one: the waste is dried. Then it's run through a specialized microwave system to turn it into syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can actually be used to generate electricity. The goal is to make the whole system energy self-sufficient - basically, to create a closed system that creates more energy than it uses.

Turn It Into Electricity and Fertilizer

At Sanergy (sanitation plus energy) has a long-term goal: create a new infrastructure of safe, clean sanitation facilities in the slums of Nairobi, and use that infrastructure to create electricity and fertilizer. And their approach is business-minded - founded by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Techology (MiT), Sanergy plans to create a network of small, low-cost sanitation centres, featuring hot showers and clean toilets.

The centres will be franchised to local entrepreneurs with direct financing from local microfinance banks. Human waste from the centres is collected in air-tight containers, which are picked up on hand carts, cleaned out by Sanergy employees, and returned to the franchisees. The collected waste will then be used to create electricity through bio-gas, and converted into fertilizer and sold to commercial and small-hold farmers. Their first official franchise agreement was signed on October 17th.

Create a Solar Toilet to Turn It Into Power

Another Gates Foundation grant went to Michael Hoffmann at the California Institute of Technology, who is working on incorporating solar-powered water treatment into a portable toilet. Hoffmann has created a system whereby sunlight is used to break down organic waste into carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Those gases are then stored in a fuel cell which can be used to generate electricity.

What's it called? The 'Self-Contained, PV-Powered Domestic Toilet and Wastewater Treatment System'. The name may need work, but the idea is exciting - a toilet that can be used by up to 500 people per day with minimal maintenance, and also generate its own electricity which could power lights for night use. At the moment, he estimates building a workable unit will cost $2,000, but that cost would come down significantly if the toilets were produced in volume.


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