Reinvented Toilet Expo highlights advances of toilet revolution

There is a toilet revolution under way. While you may have stifled a laugh reading that sentence or wondered what was wrong with the toilet you have, there are actually major ramifications to world health in this revolution. First, there’s probably nothing wrong with your toilet. But as the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing highlights, proper sanitation is a huge concern for most of the world’s population.

UNICEF reports that about 4.5 billion people don’t have access to safely managed sanitation and that nearly a billion people practice open defecation, mostly in rural areas in developing countries. Conditions like these lead to the deaths of approximately 480,000 children annually, and poor sanitation cost the world $223 billion in 2015.

As Bill Gates said at the expo the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped put together, “a decade ago I never imagined that I’d know so much about poop.” Speaking with a jar of feces next to him for dramatic effect as he detailed the pathogens it contained, Gates said the toilet revolution will represent an $8 billion global business by 2030. World Health Organization studies have shown there is a return to the global economy of about $7.50 for every dollar spent on sanitation.

Clean Technologies

A lack of clean water is the major culprit, along with poor waste-disposal infrastructure. Many of the new technologies on display at the expo highlighted ways to process waste without water sewers. One exhibit showcased Janicki Bioenergy’s Omni Processor, which removes moisture, converting solid waste to a fuel it burns to create steam that powers a generator. This process not only runs the processor, it creates surplus electricity. The steam is filtered and condensed until it becomes distilled water, which can then be treated to clean drinking standards or otherwise reused.

“The technologies you’ll see here are the most significant advances in sanitation in nearly 200 years,” Gates said, noting that chemical processing at the household level could bypass the problems posed by water scarcity.

Japan’s Lixil announced plans for an in-home reinvented toilet based on a leading prototype.

In all, more than 20 companies and academic institutions showcased their inventions including Clear, CRRC, and EcoSan from the host country. China has installed or upgraded more than 50,000 toilets since 2015, according to figures from the China National Tourism Administration. The toilet revolution initially took aim at improving facilities at tourist sites before expanding in 2017 to combat poor sanitary conditions in rural areas.

Financing the Revolution

The Gates Foundation said the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank, and other financial institutions have committed as much as $3.4 billion for “city-wide inclusive sanitation” projects that will put safely managed sanitation services in all parts of a city, including the most destitute. This will accelerate the spread of new sewer-free initiatives in low- and middle-income countries.

“Rapidly scalable systems that can deliver safe, sustainable sanitation to communities is fundamental to quality of life and the development of human capital,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said at the expo. “Sanitation is a growing priority for the World Bank Group and many global leaders. I’m pleased to announce our new partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which will help catalyze a new generation of solutions that can bring safe sanitation to everyone, everywhere on earth.”

The Gates Foundation also announced a $275 million pledge for research and development. The foundation has already spent close to $300 million on sanitation since 2011.

Given the economic impact better sanitation can have, there is a strong chance that will be money well spent.