Social Innovation in Toilet Technology Can Change Lives and Economies

Social innovation in toilet technology could provide billions of people with access to sanitation, plus create economic opportunities and conserve water. According to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) 2012 report ‘we are living in a world where 2.5 billion people still do not have access to basic sanitation facilities’ and where 1.5 million children die each year from preventable diseases. The UN states that by 2015, the world will have reached only 67% coverage, well short of the 75% needed to achieve the MDG target. So, right now there is a real desire to find sustainable solutions to this basic human need, which is intrinsically tied up with economics. Better sanitation will mean significant commercial benefits to businesses, employing healthier and more productive workforces.

The UN also estimates that achieving the MDG for sanitation could save $66bn (£41bn) over time through productivity; averted illness and death. Every dollar spent on improving sanitation generates nine times the amount in economic benefit. Yet, finding the right kind of toilet to meet the needs of the developing world is key as the modern flush toilets are not suited. As they use ten times the average daily drinking water requirement and incompatible for countries with poor access to water or sewerage networks. Scientists and inventors around the world have been seeking and creating social innovation solutions.

In 2011, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, awarding $3.2m in grants to entrants. Designs had to be hygienic, sustainable, cheap to operate and able to work "off-grid", without connections to water, electricity, or sewerage networks. Plus, they should be capable of reclaiming reusable materials from human waste. This August, 2012, Bill Gates awarded the $100,000 first prize to Dr Michael Hoffmann, professor of environment science and engineering at the California Institute of Technology, U.S. for his team's solar-powered social innovation toilet. It uses an electrochemical reactor to break down human waste into fertiliser and hydrogen gas, which can then be stored in electric fuel cells. The treated water can be reused to flush the toilet or irrigate crops! Second prize of $60,000 went to the U.K.'s Loughborough University for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals and clean water from human waste, using a process they call "continuous hydrothermal carbonisation". It’s a kind of high-pressure cooking followed by a drying and combustion process that ends up producing carbonised pellets. The dried material can be used as soil conditioner or as fuel for cooking or powering the sanitation system.

While these sustainable technological social innovation solutions are clever, they are complex. The question is will they be affordable and simple enough to use in poor areas of the developing world? Bill Gates says, "Inventing new toilets is one of the most important things we can do to reduce child deaths and disease and improve people's lives."

Photo Credit: Website of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation