Howdy, Doody


By Time Moran

There are some who would say that using the words “Bill Gates” and “crap” in the same sentence would not be all that unusual. Windows, Word and Outlook have all taken their share of bad-mouthing over the years. Whatever your feelings about Microsoft’s products, Gates and his foundation are really taking “crap” seriously, and it has nothing to do with software.

According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation site, dealing with human waste around the globe has become a huge issue—one it is tackling head on. The foundation’s site states: "About 2.5 billion people use unsafe toilets or defecate in the open. Poor sanitation causes severe diarrhea, which kills 1.5 million children each year. Smart investments in sanitation can reduce disease, increase family incomes, keep girls in school, help preserve the environment and enhance human dignity."

To that end, the foundation recently held a contest to flush the old concept of the toilet down the drain and come up with a new version. The "Reinvent the Toilet Fair" was held on the group’s Seattle campus to see who could come up with a new and better way to dispose of human waste. The goals were far from simple, as the inaugural fair “showcased prototypes of all shapes and sizes (and even smells) selected by the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene team as the most promising innovations of the ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.’” The challenge was to develop a toilet that:

  • destroys human waste or converts it into valuable resources such as gas, fertilizer combustible fuel and electricity;
  • operates "off the grid" without connections to water, sewer or electrical lines;
  • costs less than 5 cents per user per day in combined capital and operation expenses; and
  • is a truly aspirational "next-generation" product that everyone will want to use—in wealthy as well as developing nations.

The competition’s “king of the throne” was the California Institute of Technology, which received the $100,000 prize for its solar-powered commode. Explains the foundation: "[this is a] self-contained, solar-powered toilet and wastewater treatment system. A solar panel will produce enough power to run an electrochemical reactor that is designed to break down water and human waste into hydrogen gas. This system is designed to process all bodily waste and all wastewater produced by a family, sanitizing the water for flushing or local usage."

Special recognition was given to Eawag: Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology and EOOS Design GmbH for their "urine-diverting toilet." The Eawag can be retrofitted and used anywhere there is existing toilet housing. It's cleaned using recycled water that is treated with a system built, invisibly, into the back of the unit. A foot pump pumps the recycled water into a holding tank.

I applaud Gates and his foundation for doing this valuable research in such a sensitive area. The word “doody” might be funny, but the disposal of human waste, especially in underdeveloped regions of the world, is no laughing matter.