World Toilet Summit Plumbs New Depths

Hands off my john!

On November 19, 2008, in commemoration of "World Toilet Day," the Australian site published "Experts call for end of flushing toilets on World Toilet Day."  The story opened:

As the world celebrates World Toilet Day today, sanitation experts have called for the end of the flushing dunny to save water and provide fertilizer for crops.

The World Toilet Summit was held in Macau under the sponsorship of the World Toilet Organization.  One might think from its name that this organization is in honor of Thomas Crapper's humble device, but no: in his address to the assembled delegates, Jack Sims, founder of the organization, said that the concept of the flushing toilet was "unsustainable."

You can be excused for thinking that the global environmentalist great and good were calling for a return to outhouses.  After all, ordinary flush toilets have been outlawed in the United States for some years now, with predictably scatological results, and no less a global eminence than actress Sheryl Crow famously called for rationing of toilet paper - one sheet per time, or else!

Surprisingly, however, the Summit's conclusion is a lot more sensible than it sounds, particularly regarding Australia which is suffering a long-term drought.  The Australian water shortage is so severe that the government is buying up farmers' water rights along major rivers, diverting water out of the agricultural system and sending it to cities.  It's pretty obvious that something profound needs to be done, so it's not at all foolish to look under ever rock, log, and toilet seat cover for ideas.

Water, Water Everywhere...

Australia isn't the only country facing a severe water shortage.  The International Herald Tribune reports that half of the world's population will face severe water shortage by 2080 and that large parts of India and China are already short of water.

The World Toilet Organization claims that there are 2.6 billion people without access to toilets of whom 2/3 live in southern and eastern Asia.  Giving these people access to flushing toilets would greatly increase water consumption.  As Mr. Sims put it, this is "unsustainable" in parts of the world which already suffer from water shortages.

The normal flush toilet uses between 5 and 7 gallons of water per flush.  The notorious "water saving" toilets use 1.5 to 3.5 gallons per flush.  This could save a great deal of water considering that most people flush the toilet several times per day, but even so, giving 2.6 billion people access to new flush toilets is impractical - there simply isn't enough water available to support even low-flush toilets for that many new users.

When it comes to shortages, there are two approaches: 1) get more or 2) conserve what you have.  The Australian government is considering imposing a tax to encourage people to use less water.  The Japanese have approached the problem of conserving water in two major ways:

  1. Moving the flush lever in one direction releases a small amount of water for getting rid of urine; moving the lever the other way releases more water for dispatching solid stuff.
  2. As the tank refills, the incoming water first sprays into a small catch basin set in the lid.  You're supposed to wash your hands in this stream so that you don't run water in the sink.

Japanese toilets have a third feature which facilitates sewage recycling - the toilet sprays water on your bottom, somewhat like a European bidet, so that you use less paper.  This leads to a significant reduction in the volume of toilet paper passing through the system.  Taking lots of soggy paper out of the effluent stream doesn't save water, but it does save a great deal of energy and makes sewage treatment easier.

This illustrates a third approach to a shortage - recycle.  The Japanese make extensive use of sewage treatment to recycle their water, and reducing paper use saves considerable energy at the sewage plant.  There are facilities in America with the ability to do the same thing, which output water straight from sewage that is actually cleaner than tap-water - but squeamish drinkers can't overcome the psychology of its origin and don't allow it to be put back into the mains.  Instead, the water is used for less-finicky industrial processes that don't care about where it came from as long as it's totally pure.

Sometimes even science can't overcome human nature.  Australian environmentalists are protesting a plan to introduce recycled sewage to increase water flow in a river because the recycled water is "too clean."  The Age reports:

"The purified recycled water that will be coming from the Eastern Treatment Plant will be the equivalent of distilled water," she [environmental spokesperson Leonie Duncan] said.

"It sounds bizarre, but it will actually be too clean for the Yarra. It will lack that real physical and chemical composition that is required to feed the chain of life in a river."

These Australian environmental purists insist that any water put into a river must be exactly the same as the water already there.

There are places in the US where even that is forbidden.  Some lakes and rivers have greater concentrations of pollutants than sewage plants are permitted to discharge.  In those cases, you can take a bucket of water out, but you can't put it back - the water in your bucket is now more polluted than permitted and you can't dump it back in.

Some people are never satisfied.

No-Water Solutions

As inspiring as innovations in low-flush toilets are, they are not sufficient for the apostles of greenery.  The World Toilet Organization is sponsoring research projects based on zero-water toilets.  These toilets separate urine from feces so that there's no need to flush at all; the device then converts solid waste to biogas and fertilizer.  A demonstration project at the Zhao Jiagou Village school in Tianzhen County, Shanxi Province, China, replaced open-pit latrines with toilets; the biogas was used to heat water for hand-washing.

The goal is to develop toilets which can bring improved sanitation to billions of people without adversely affecting water supplies.  This is not a bad idea, in principle; in many parts of the world, feces is the only potential power-generating fuel source both readily available and affordable.  Bad sanitation causes millions of deaths every year, and spreads all manner of deadly diseases, so providing equipment like this in places where no toilets have ever existed is a worthy cause.

All is not well in toilet-land, however.  The Asian approach is to try out new toilets in separate locations, test them long enough to make sure that they work without excessive maintenance, and publish well-tested system designs which are suited to different conditions and user educational levels.

When You Gotta Go?

We at Scragged have noted that our government takes a considerably less systematic approach to "innovation."  When the EPA forced the elimination of sulfur from diesel fuel, for example, they tested the change for 30 days in sunny California, then mandated it nationwide.

Unfortunately, sulfur is needed to make diesel fuel flow at low temperatures.  My sons ended up stuck on the highway in a stalled school bus at ten degrees below zero when the diesel fuel in their bus congealed.

We've written about what happened when low-flush toilets were first mandated - it took years for them to work well enough to actually save any water because earlier models simply didn't get the job done and had to be flushed two or three times.

On the one hand, the humanitarian in us wishes the World Toilet Council well.  If they are able to develop workable zero-flush toilet systems, they will have struck at least as big a blow for public health and longevity as Mr. Gates' investments in malaria vaccine.

On the other hand, if history is any guide, our eco-fascists are more than likely to seize on their work before it's ready for prime time.  Experience suggests that the moment that zero-flush toilets seem to work, they'll pressure the EPA to mandate them on the grounds of saving water, cutting carbon footprint, recycling methane, and Saving the Planet.

The Japanese are a much more government-friendly nation than we are, but not even the Japanese mandated toilet design.  They simply priced water at what it cost to deliver it including capital costs, operating costs, recycling, and accumulating money for future repairs.

In crowded Japan, high energy costs and absurd right-of-way costs make it expensive to provide water.  Once water was priced at cost, the market and Japanese ingenuity ended up producing toilets that saved a lot of water - no bureaucratic action required.

The Japanese are smart enough to know that subsidizing water users leads to wasting water, so unlike many other countries, they priced water to market.  By removing government interference and reducing red tape, Japan allowed the market to develop a system that is environmentally sound, commercially successful, and politically neutral - arguably the world's most effective system for minimizing resource use with respect to toiletry.

If our EPA would allow the market to work, we could support their initiatives.  Given their history of heavy-handed over-regulation of politically-favored technologies which aren't ready and the unfortunate outcome of various experiments with providing public toilets, however, we're anticipating another bureaucratic attempt to flush our toilets down the drain.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
The Times is on this one, too.

Room for Debate: Toilet Paper and Other Moral Choices
What are the simplest changes that Americans can adopt that would make an environmental difference?
February 26, 2009 11:50 AM
Do two points make a trend?

Yellow Is the New Green
What does a urine diversion toilet have to teach us all? A lot. The device can help us save energy, water, the oceans, and cheaply fertilize fields.
February 27, 2009 10:06 AM
Australia is still struggling with a water shortage. It started to rain again just after they spent many billions on desalination plants, of course.

Arid Australia Sips Seawater, but at a Cost
After its worst drought, the country is turning to desalination plants, but environmentalists worry about the energy-hungry plants' effect on climate.
July 11, 2010 2:30 PM

Low water toilets are desirable in Haiti, too.

Video: The Miracle Toilet
Nicholas D. Kristof reports from Haiti about toilets that aim to address the sanitation problems that lead to cholera, while also providing fertilizer to help farmers.

December 2, 2010 6:01 PM

These guys offer a complete line of waterless toilets

January 17, 2011 11:16 AM

Bill Gages steps into the fray:

SEATTLE (AP) — These aren't your typical loos. One uses microwave energy to transform human waste into electricity. Another captures urine and uses it for flushing. And still another turns excrement into charcoal.

They are part of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation competition to reinvent the toilet for the 2.5 billion people around the world who don't have access to modern sanitation.

Scientists from around the world have taken up the challenge, and the foundation announced some projects Tuesday that will be getting more money to take their ideas from the lab to cities.

There, local entrepreneurs will use the new technology to turn pollution into cash.

"We couldn't be happier with the response that we've gotten," Bill Gates said.

To pass the foundation's threshold for the world's next toilet, it must operate without running water, electricity or a septic system, not discharge pollutants, preferably capture energy or other resources, and operate at a cost of 5 cents a day.

The United Nations estimates disease caused by unsafe sanitation results in about half the hospitalizations in the developing world. About 1.5 million children die each year from diarrheal disease.

Scientists believe most of these deaths could be prevented with proper sanitation, along with safe drinking water and improved hygiene.

The foundation expects to field test its first prototypes within the next three years.

Most of the prototypes on display this week in the open courtyard of the foundation's Seattle headquarters turn solid waste into energy. This is both a practical and pragmatic solution to the solid waste puzzle, said Carl Hensman, program officer for the foundation's water, sanitation and hygiene team.

Many recycle waste into other usable substances such as animal feed, water for irrigation, or even just energy and water to run their own systems.

Some, like the winning project from Caltech, use chemistry and engineering to completely transform the waste.

Clement Cid, a Caltech grad student from Trouillas, France, said it has been intellectually rewarding to work with scientists from a variety of specialties.

"You can come up with great ideas," he said, adding that the toilet fair offered more opportunities for idea sharing.

Other projects on display were not so high-tech, including one from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that sends black soldier fly larvae inside latrines and even home toilets to process waste, resulting in high quality, environmentally friendly animal feed at a cost of a penny a day.

The fly larvae project is already being field tested in Cape Town, South Africa, and the inventors are working on a kit to sell to entrepreneurs. They have had inquiries from Haiti, Sudan, Kenya and Ghana about adopting the approach.

"At the end of the day it will look very low-tech, but there's a lot of science behind it," said Walter Gibson, a medical biochemist who is part of the development team.

The Gates toilet focus started just about a year ago, and including grants announced Tuesday, $370 million in foundation dollars have been committed to reinventing the toilet. Hensman said the foundation decided to hold a toilet fair this week to show how far the scientists have gotten in that time, and to give them an opportunity to learn from each other and potentially collaborate.

Among those scheduled to attend the toilet fair were government ministers from African nations, utility workers and potential financial partners like UNICEF and Oxfam.

Flush toilets waste tons of potable drinking water each year, fail to recapture reusable resources like the potential energy in solid waste and are simply impractical in so many places.

"If we do it right, there's every possibility that some of these designs would also be solutions for rich and middle-income countries," Gates said.

August 16, 2012 6:50 PM

Progress is being made!

In many places building a flushing toilet system, as we know it, is nearly impossible. Some places simply don't have enough water. Some have too much, which complicates water treatment processes because of floods and overflows. Others don't have the means to build the water-based infrastructure. That's why Loowatt, a London-based startup, came up with a radically different flushing solution — one that doesn't use water at all.

In Loowatt's waterless flush design, the waste is sealed into a biodegradable bag underneath the toilet with not a drop of water being spilled. Once full, the bag is replaced by a service team, and the waste is brought (yes, hand-delivered) to Loowatt's pilot waste-processing facility, where it's converted to fertilizer and biogas.

This very manual setup sounds very archaic compared to the slick and convenient arrangements of the Western world. But sanitation experts think that in the era of climate change, when droughts and floods are becoming increasingly common, the West may have something to learn from the little waterless loos piloted in penniless Madagascan neighborhoods. With the world's population ever-increasing, places that historically relied on water for sanitation may have to reconsider how they flush.

June 20, 2017 11:35 AM

Mr. Gates is still at it. He's putting in nearly a half-billion dollars and the governmetn of China is behind it. It's clearly a difficult problem, but something might happen this time.....

Bill Gates believes the world needs better toilets.

Specifically, toilets that improve hygiene, don’t have to connect to sewage systems at all and can break down human waste into fertilizer.

So on Tuesday in Beijing, Mr. Gates held the Reinvented Toilet Expo, a chance for companies to showcase their takes on the simple bathroom fixture. Companies showed toilets that could separate urine from other waste for more efficient treatment, that recycled water for hand washing and that sported solar roofs.

It’s no laughing matter. About 4.5 billion people — more than half the world’s population — live without access to safe sanitation. Globally, Mr. Gates told attendees, unsafe sanitation costs an estimated $223 billion a year in the form of higher health costs and lost productivity and wages.

The reinvented toilets on display are a culmination of seven years of research and $200 million given by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which the former software tycoon runs with his wife, since 2011. On Tuesday, Mr. Gates pledged to give $200 million more in an effort get companies to see human waste as a big business.

Mr. Gates said in an interview that “it will be at least a decade” before the reinvented toilets reach tens of millions of people in the poorest areas, and they will have to prove both practical and economical. “Nobody wants overnight solutions” in sanitation, he added.

Mr. Gates brought his pitch to China in hopes of finding an appreciative audience. The country, now the world’s second-largest economy, has made improving the daily lives of its once poverty-stricken people a top priority. Though it has made great strides in recent years, China’s sanitation system remains deficient in many areas.

More than a quarter of Chinese families still lack a sanitary toilet in their homes, according to official figures, and only about 60 percent of Chinese rural households have toilets that treat human waste.

Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, has called for a “toilet revolution.” (Incidentally, the Reinvented Toilet Expo is called “Toilets in the New Era” in Chinese.) Having clean toilets, Mr. Xi said in 2015, is an important goal in “advancing the revitalization of the countryside.”

November 7, 2018 10:54 AM

California's $1.7 Million Toilet Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

California Governor Gavin Newsome is threatening to cancel a proposed new public toilet in San Francisco's Noe Valley Town Square if San Francisco officials cannot get costs under control. According to a recent budget breakdown, the current plan is projected to cost $1.7 million, including $300,000 for architecture and engineering fees and $150,000 for construction management fees. Only $750,000 of the $1.7 million is for actual construction costs. Even if approved, the toilet may not be completed until 2025 due to the long planning process.

If this sounds absurd, it is because it is. As reported in Cowboy State Daily, the town of Gillette, Wyoming built a 520 square foot public facility with six stalls in three months for $222,582. Gillette's toilet was one-eighth the cost and according to reports more than three times the size, with six toilets compared to one in the San Francisco proposal. Per square foot, Gillette's facility cost $428, while San Francisco's would cost $11,333.

October 25, 2022 4:43 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...