November 7, 2018 Health

Re-inventing the toilet: a new era of safe non-sewered sanitation

Placing a jar of faeces on a pedestal next to him, philanthropist Bill Gates made a plea Tuesday for the safe disposal of human waste as he kicked off the “Reinvented Toilet” Expo in China.

“You might guess what’s in this beaker — and you’d be right. Human faeces,” the former CEO of software giant Microsoft said. “This small amount of faeces could contain as many as 200 trillion rotavirus cells, 20 billion Shigella bacteria, and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs.”
[See Bill Gates’ full remarks as prepared for the Expo]

He went on to say that pathogens like these cause diseases that kill nearly 500,000 children under the age of 5 every year.

UNICEF estimates that 4.5 billion people worldwide do not have access to safely managed sanitation. This deprivation in dignity has also economic costs. Poor sanitation cost the world nearly $223 billion in 2015, according to a study by Oxford Economics and Japanese toilet maker Lixil.

While many developed nations have followed a linear design approach to meet their sanitation needs, developing countries continue to struggle to implement conventional waterborne systems, due to a myriad of factors associated with financing, affordability and lack of capacity, which results in heavy reliance on on-site systems.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that Gates co-founded with his wife has spent more than $200 million since 2011 to stimulate research and development of safe sanitation technology. Speaking to the BBC World Services, IWA Executive Director, Kala Vairavamoorthy praised many of the innovative solutions funded by the Gates Foundation to re-invent the toilet system as they’re focusing on treating human waste within the toilet itself, operating completely off the grid and recovering valuable onsite[1].


Jay Bhagwan, Chair of the newly created IWA Specialist Group on Non-Sewered Sanitation and Executive Manager, Water Use and Waste Management, Water Research Commission applauds Bill Gates’ stunt, as “it demonstrates that raw human waste is no longer a taboo, but an opportunity to shape the future of non-sewered sanitation and innovate across the entire sanitation value chain.”

Jay felt privileged to attend the Gates Sanitation Fair in Beijing where some of the leading prototypes and commercial products of the cohort of new disruptive non-sewered sanitation and off-grid sanitation solutions are being launched. “It’s exciting to see the next-generation toilet technologies are flourishing – shifting away from the current ‘flush-and-dispose’ and ‘drop-and-store’ models to systems that apply circular sanitation thinking and design”, he said.

“While there is a growing interest and investment in new toilet technology”, Jay continued, “this is now the time to refine the next generation of off-grid, innovative and novel technological options for sanitation which take into account available water and energy resources, user preferences, variable user population, and are able to treat human wastes at source, eliminating pathogens, and generating products of beneficial value,” said Jay Bhagwan.

Jay Bhagwan, presenting the IWA Specialist Group on Non-Sewered Sanitation at the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition 2018.

Bill Gates was joined in stage by another sanitation hero of our time, Jack Sim aka Mr. Toilet, the founder of the Restroom Association of Singapore, the World Toilet Organization, the World Toilet Day initiative and Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) Hub. “[The global sanitation challenge] is for the brave”, he said during the Toilet expo in China.

This is indeed the time for fierce determination to unleash the sanitation revolution, moving to scale and application. The stablishing of the newly created IWA Specialist Group on Non-Sewered Sanitation couldn’t be more timely to support this emerging industry.

Stimulating the next generation of non-sewered sanitation

The mission of this IWA Specialist Group is to bring together experts, scientists and practitioners with experience in faecal sludge management (FSM) and non-sewered sanitation (NSS) to generate, collate and disseminate knowledge in the area worldwide. This knowledge aims to guide sanitation service provision in a sustainable way therefore improving the quality of life for millions of people using on-site sanitation systems and therefore contributes towards achieving SDG target 6.2. In this effort, the group will work closely with other IWA Specialist Groups, including Resource Orientated Sanitation, Sludge Management and Sanitation and Water Management in Developing Countries, in areas where there will be interest in jointly furthering knowledge and understanding of Feacal Sludge Managament.

As water is an increasingly scarce resource, reinvented toilets are a solution to ensure both water and sanitation security. The long term goal of the NSS SG is to introduce a whole new disruption around innovation and market process in the sanitation environment.

If you want to be part of shaping this new era of safe sanitation, get in touch with the IWA Specialist Group on Non-Sewered Sanitation.

[1] One of those projects developed in response to the Bill & Melinda Gates’ Foundation “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” by Cranfield University, the Nano Membrane Toilet (NMT) project, won the Kiran and Pallavi Patel Grand Innovation Award 2018, delivered at the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition 2018.