Flushed with Pride*

August 23, 2012

A number of people in the technology world, your scribe included, have been known to make disparaging remarks from time to time about some of Mr. Bill Gates’s business practices and views of technology.  However, I will be the first to commend him for the really constructive way in which he has chosen to use some of his wealth.  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a charity established by Gates, has taken a leading role in supporting and promoting global health initiatives, notably in the efforts against malaria and AIDS.

The Foundation has now set its sights on a new target: plumbing fixtures.  Specifically, as an article at Wired reports, it has launched a competition to design a new toilet, one that might be suitable for the roughly 40% of the world’s population (about 2.6 billion people) who cannot use our familiar toilet design, because they lack the infrastructure (e.g., water supplies) needed to use them.

The challenge: Create a toilet that doesn’t rely on piped water, sewer, or electrical connections. And while you’re at it, fashion something useful from the waste that goes in. Energy and water might be nice. Do it all for $0.05 per user per day, and you might win a $100,000 prize.

Those of us who live in the US or other wealthy countries will probably have a certain tendency to snicker at a project like this.  I think, though, we would do well to remember that a significant amount of the progress in human health that has been made in the developed world happened as the result of civil engineering.  Even in the 19th century, London, certainly one of the most developed cities in the world at the time, suffered regular cholera epidemics before the completion of a new sewer system following the Great Stink of 1858.

The winning design from this first round of the competition is definitely ingenious.  As a post on the “Babbage” blog at The Economist explains,

The winning toilet, however, is smarter still. It has been developed by Michael Hoffman of the California Institute of Technology, and has earned him the $100,000 first prize. Dr Hoffman’s toilet uses solar panels to power an electrochemical system that produces two things. One is hydrogen. The other is a compound which oxidises the salts in urine to generate chlorine. This creates a mildly disinfecting solution that can be used to flush the toilet. The hydrogen is suitable for cooking or for powering a fuel cell to produce electricity. The solid residue from the process can be employed as fertiliser.

All of this is good stuff.  However, as a post on the “Wired Science” blog at Wired points out, more than technology may be required to change long-ingrained habits.  For very poor people, immediate concerns (where is my next meal coming from?) tend to trump longer-term health benefits.  Once a good technology is developed, there is still a good deal of work to be done to make  it a socially-approved choice.


*The title of this post is also the title of  Wallace Reyburn’s biography of Thomas Crapper, a Victorian era plumber and vendor of plumbing fixtures.  Contrary to popular lore, he did not invent the flush toilet, but did help popularize it.  Thomas Crapper & Co opened the world’s first showroom for plumbing fixtures and “sanitary ware” in the King’s Road in London.



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