NY Times Op Ed: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

By Jason Kass, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times. Original article.

In addition to eradicating polio in India and starting the personal computer revolution, the Seattle Superman of our age has managed to make going to the bathroom a cause célèbre. Five years ago, if I’d told people I worked on toilets, they would have surely assumed I was a plumber. Now, they exclaim: “Oh! Isn’t Bill Gates into that?”

More than one-third of the world’s population, approximately 2.5 billion people, doesn’t have access to a toilet. The Gates Foundation and a handful of celebrities like Matt Damon deserve credit for putting this sanitation crisis on the map.

The trouble is that the Gates Foundation has treated the quest to find the proper solution as it would a cutting-edge project at Microsoft: lots of bells and whistles, sky-high budgets and engineers in elite institutions experimenting with the newest technologies, thousands of miles away from their clients.

Just consider some of the parameters of the Gates Foundation’s first Reinvent the Toilet Challenge: Create a “practical” toilet that is suitable for a single-family residence in the developing world. Make sure it takes in the bodily waste of an entire family and outputs drinkable water and condiments, like salt. And while you’re at it, make sure that the toilet is microprocessor-supervised and converts feces into energy. And all this has to cost just pennies per person per day. That’s some toilet.

The winner of last year’s contest invented a solar-powered toilet that converts poop into energy for cooking. Impressive — but each one costs $1,000.

Other models boasted membrane systems, treatment of fecal sludge using supercritical water oxidation (heating water to 705 degrees Fahrenheit, or 374 degrees Celsius, then injecting oxygen) and hydrothermal carbonization (oxidizing feces at a high temperature and high pressure while under water).

High-tech toilets are exciting, but even the Gates Foundation has admitted that “the economics of such a solution remain uncertain.” In plain English: No one can afford them.

They are beyond impractical for those who need them most: the residents of slums in countries like Haiti, Indonesia and Bangladesh, where people make between $1 and $5 per day.

Just imagine the fate of a high-tech toilet in one of these communities. What happens if the unique membrane systems get clogged? Or if the supercritical water vessel or the hydrothermal carbonization tank leaks, or worse, explodes? Or what if one of the impoverished residents realizes the device is worth more than a year’s earnings and decides to steal it? If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything, it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work.

The people I’ve met in countries like Peru, El Salvador and Haiti tend to be subsistence farmers in the countryside or residents of big-city slums who do odd jobs to make ends meet. They are survivors. They make use of what they have, and are often very good at fixing things. But don’t ask them to become industrial engineers overnight.

When I listen to Mr. Gates talk toilets, I think of Juana, who lives in Belén, Peru, a city of 65,000 at the mouth of the Amazon River. Her neighborhood is under water half the year. During the other half, the drainage ditches are filled with excrement and rats.

When Juana needs to relieve herself, she walks on a narrow plank for about 30 feet until she arrives at her bathroom — four rotting wooden posts wrapped with a tarp. She stands, precariously, on two narrow slats perched above a ditch and does what she needs to do. She also knows that her kids play nearby and worries about their getting sick, since the waste goes directly into a stream.

Poor sanitation contributes to 2,000 childhood deaths from diarrheal diseases every day. Unfortunately for Juana, and the millions of people who live on marginal, waterlogged land, there are no cheap solutions available. What they need are the kind of toilets that they can buy or build with a few weeks’ savings.

Ecological toilets that use natural composting to break down waste are simple to construct, waterless and are easy to fix. This is the go-to toilet for cottage owners in America who live too close to the water to have a septic system.

The only problem is they’re too expensive, with price tags of over $1,000. In Haiti, an organization called SOIL has successfully brought low-cost composting toilets to over 20,000 people, and my organization is working on developing a more affordable version.

Even simple solutions like the Peepoo bag, which inexpensively (less than 2 cents per bag) sanitizes waste before turning it into fertilizer, are huge improvements. They can also be critical in saving lives after natural disasters.

If we embrace these low-tech toilets, we’ll be on the right track to getting 2.5 billion people one step closer to a safe, clean, comfortable and affordable toilet of their own. That’s something worth celebrating this World Toilet Day.

Jason Kass is an environmental engineer and the founder of the organization Toilets for People.

3 Replies to "NY Times Op Ed: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet"

  • Alex
    November 20, 2013 (6:45 pm)

    This is great. Thanks for all your good work.

  • georgeb
    November 25, 2013 (9:37 am)

    I hadn’t really thought about this subject much, so I might be a little out my depth here, but this sounds like a fantastic approach. It spurred me to do more reading on the subject and on Bill Gates approach. Unfortunately, as I read the Gates website, more of Jasons comments and other information on composting toilets, the Op Ed now seems to be more of a baiting piece aimed towards Bill Gates and his Foundation than a sincere opinion.

    I still think the idea of composting is fantastic, but I’m not sure how composting toilets in urban slums would work. From what I read with composting toilets there’s just not enough space for everyone to be able to have access to one. I’ve also been reading up on intestinal worms, things we don’t have to worry about over here. How do I know that my composting toilet has got rid of these things, they seem to be tough to eliminate and no one seems to have an easy method for check that they are all gone. If they arn’t eliminated and I go use the compost for fertilizer is that going to cause me problems?

    I also think that Jason hasn’t read much on what Bill Gates is doing, it seems to me that while this Reinvent the Toilet thing has gotten a lot of publicity, the Gates website shows that it’s just part of their work. I just read a bunch of stuff that they seem to be investigating that isn’t high tech stuff, but seems pretty simple and easy to me, including composting.

    Anyway, I love the idea about composting human waste and I’m not keen on Bill Gates high tech approach, but I’m suprised that NYT published an OP Ed that obviously had very little research behind it. But I supposed that’s why it’s an opinion piece.

    I hope Jason keeps up the good work, but I also hope he figures out how to be a little less combative and more encompassing of everyones approach. The world does needs more collaboration. Perhaps he can ask Bill Gates for money to support his project.

    • Sasha Kramer
      November 25, 2013 (4:33 pm)

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments George. We wanted to take a moment to respond to some of your questions. You are correct in your perception that the Reinvent the Toilet is only one of many Gates interventions and indeed the funding has been widely distributed to a variety of innovations, only some of which are high tech and several of which use composting technology. I do think that Jason brings up some excellent points and my hope is that this article will encourage a healthy debate.

      In terms of your questions about composting toilets let us take a stab at responding.

      1) Can composting toilets work in dense urban areas? The short answer is yes absolutely. But the longer answer is that you are correct that composting toilets which require onsite composting are not appropriate for dense urban areas as significant space is required to safely treat the waste. However, with SOIL’s system (and several others such as Sanergy and X-runner) the toilets rely on a collection service which collects the waste on a weekly basis and transports it to an offsite composting facility where the wastes are treated in a controlled environment. This system is excellent for dense urban settlements that lack sewer systems.

      2) How does one ensure that the pathogens are killed? This is another reason that SOIL advocates for offsite composting in a centralized, controlled facility. We ensure pathogen die off by monitoring temperatures in the compost bins to make sure that they reach the WHO standards of 122 F for at least 1 week. We then verify that the compost is safe through pathogen testing for each bin of compost before it is sold. Since we know that all of the compost that we sell is pathogen free no one need be concerned about the risks of applying it to their plants.

      I hope that these responses are helpful and we are grateful for your contribution to this discussion.
      Warm regards, The SOIL team

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