Japanese toilet seat

Ask any expert in international health what would be the most burning need in the villages of Africa, India, Pakistan, and some areas of Asia and South America and you’d get the surprising answer: latrines. Just teach the villagers how to dig a latrine and how to keep minimal hygienic standards and you’d solve major plagues of infectious and parasitic diseases that are responsible for a major part of child morbidity and mortality. Several years ago, on a trip to South America, we saw a vivid demonstration of the problem; we went to the village restaurant and at the entrance was the owners’ toddler, playing in his own excrement. We avoided the place, but some traveling companions who did eat there came down with a severe diarrheal disease. Multiply this scenario millions of times and you get the extent of the problem.

 

The History of the Toilet

The popular belief was that Thomas Crapper invented the modern flush toilet at the end of the 19th century. Yes, he was issued several patents for it. And his name suggests that he must have something to do with crap, which as a matter of fact, he may have. In medieval England, people’s  surnames reflected physical traits (Longfellow, Whitehead), geographic origin (London, York) or occupation (Smith, Goldsmith, Carter, Gardner, Chapman). So one of Crapper’s ancestor must have had something to do with…crap. The actual inventor was Sir John Harrington, at the end of the 16th century. He built it for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth. After a few tries she refused to use it again; too noisy, she said.

Since the 16th century, we have been using Harrington’s basic design, with a few improvement by Crapper and others. Basically, we are transferring the waste to the water supply system, treat it and either dispose of it, or recycle it in the form of “gray water”.

Japanese toilet. The water jet can be adjusted for temperature and water pressure. Did Crapper think of that?

The problem in the villages then is not just digging the latrine. Disposal of the waste, if not treated, is itself a major source of infectious and parasitic diseases. And water is an expensive commodity, if available at all. Areas in South Sudan, the North African desert (Sahara), Northern China,  simply don’t have the water to spare.

 

A revolutionary solution

The  Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge,” which aims to improve on the limitations of the 19th-century toilet still in use today, for 2.6 billion people lacking access to sanitation. According to the foundation,  “reinventing the toilet could save millions of lives and help end poverty. About 80 percent of human waste goes into rivers and streams untreated, and 1.1 billion people don’t use a toilet.

The winning solution must be hygienic and sustainable, with an operational cost of no more than five cents per user, per day. It may not discharge pollutants and must generate energy and recover salt, water, and other nutrients. It may not rely on water to flush waste or a septic system to process and store waste”.

A small startup, Paulee Clean Tech, recently won a grant from the foundation, with promises of more to come. The invention is truly revolutionary.

Solid waste, which also can include toilet paper, is mixed with a patented chemical formula for not more than 30 seconds and it turns immediately into an odorless, sterile fertilizer. The fertilizer is automatically dropped into a removable canister where it can be collected from time to time and then be used for field and/or home crops.

The liquid waste is sterilized separately in another reservoir and then pumped up to flush the toilet – powered by heat energy created from the solid-waste process and stored in a battery. According to the patent-pending device, the internally created heat would even power a light inside the stall. To back up the energy source, they also use a small solar panel on the roof.

There’s no need for any sewerage or electricity infrastructures or connections. No need for water to flush. No special maintenance — the chemicals can be put in its dispenser once a month, and the cost of one use is only 5 cents a day.

 

Do well by doing good

The invention, stimulated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenge grant, can solve urgent problems in the developed world as well. Water scarcity, according to the CIA Water Security assessment of 2012, is already a major cause of conflicts around the globe and is projected to become much worse in the near to medium future as a result of climate change. In California, water bills are jumping by leaps and bounds. In our county a bond issue was approved to build a desalination plant; the cost of that water will be several fold higher.

Can you imagine a brand new approach to waste disposal, based on the Paulee invention?

The inventors, Oded Shoseyev of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Oded Halperin, a venture investor, intended their invention to help eradicate the consequences of abject poverty and save millions of lives. But they are not hopeless dreamers -they have their feet planted solidly on the ground. To keep their company financially viable they adapted it to a dog pooper-scooper (dubbed AshePooPie); no smell, no mess, no plastic collection bags -in 30 seconds you made a sterile organic fertilizer for your garden. And you’ll be happy to know that by buying those pooper-scoopers (they should be on the market in 2013) you help prevent millions of people from succumbing to debilitating infectious and parasitic diseases. How can you beat that?

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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