This blog post was produced by Jason Gerhard, an Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Canada Research Chair in Geoenvironmental Restoration at Western University.  Dr. Gerhard leads research into soil and groundwater remediation, with applications in urban sustainability and sanitation.

I have worked for more than 15 years in the remediation of sites contaminated with hazardous industrial wastes (e.g., PCBs, tars, carcinogenic solvents).  This is a significant problem for society and there are literally tens of thousands of such sites across North America and Europe.  However this is primarily a first world problem, since major industrial pollution usually accompanies heavy industrialization.  While I get considerable satisfaction from working on environmental problems, having the opportunity to apply my expertise to benefit people living in less industrialized nations has tremendous appeal.  That is why I am so excited to tell you about the following project – it is a chance to utilize my engineering and research skills to potentially create a solution that could benefit billions of the least privileged.

Access to adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene remains a critical challenge for much of the developing world.   The UN cites that 2.5 billion people lack access to basic sanitation and that this leads to 1.5 million child deaths every year.  This includes a significant population that still uses open defecation, due to the lack of available toilets, or the unsafe or inhospitable condition of the latrines available, or limited understanding of their importance in preventing disease.  Moreover, recent research claims that these numbers are under-estimated: in fact, 4.1 billion people – six out of every 10 people on the planet – do not use toilet facilities that provide any treatment of the waste before it is returned to the environment.  The difference in statistics is associated with the widespread use of pit latrines with no adequate system for treating the waste they collect, which eventually releases pathogens to the environment (after they overflow and are abandoned, during flooding in monsoon season, etc.).   Thus, open defecation and untreated pit latrines represent a significant pathway for pathogens to enter surface water and groundwater, leading to disease, disability, and death.

Progress on improving sanitation is slow.  The Millennium Development Goal of halving the population without access to improved sanitation from 1990 levels by 2015 is not going to be achieved, according to the August 2012 progress report.  Flush toilets, the standard in Western communities, have changed little since they were installed in the palace of Queen Elizabeth I.  Meanwhile the extensive infrastructure required by these toilets to deliver flush water, transport waste, and centrally treat waste is simply not practical for a large fraction of the developing world, particularly in rural and impoverished areas.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is leading a particularly ambitious initiative to address this.  The Reinvent the Toilet Challenge aims to develop a transformative technological solution to human waste.  They are funding research teams to develop a household toilet that requires no water infrastructure, no sewage pipes, no connection to electricity, and disinfects the waste within 24 hours, while at the same time costing less than 5 cents per person per day.  The goal is to develop and deploy innovative and affordable technologies that can make a step change improvement in sanitation in the developing world.  The program launched in 2011 and in August 2012, the 8 research teams that received first-round funding were invited to the Reinvent the Toilet Fair at the Gates Foundation Headquarters in Seattle.  Each team had to present live demonstrations of their proof-of-concept research, with three teams awarded prizes for developing the most promising approaches to a reinvented toilet.

One of the winning teams is a partnership between University of Toronto (Profs. Cheng and Kortschot, Chemical Engineering), University of Queensland (Prof. Torero, Combustion Engineering) and myself.  Our toilet concept focuses on treating the liquid (urine and wash water) via low-energy ultra-violet light using only a fraction of the energy obtained from a solar panel.  Meanwhile, the feces are destroyed using its own embedded energy.  Self-sustaining smouldering, the process observed in a charcoal barbeque, is here employed to convert the feces into heat and water vapour with minimal input of external energy.  The smouldering reactor is an adaptation of a new soil remediation technology developed at Western in the RESTORE (Research for Subsurface Transport and Remediation) group.  This technology, known as STAR (Self-sustaining Treatment for Active Remediation), has been demonstrated to destroy toxic industrial pollutants in soil in a similar cost effective and energy efficient manner.  You can watch a video explaining this new toilet concept and read an article in Popular Science magazine presenting a prototype sketch of the toilet and accompanying explanation.

The second phase of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is currently seeing these teams developing full-scale prototypes, turning their scientific concepts into working toilets.  The Gates Foundation is seeking rapid results, with a full prototype expected in approximately 12 to 14 months.  These will be showcased (including our design) in a second Toilet Fair in early 2014.  The Gates Foundation, which hands out around $3 billion each year across all aspects of philanthropy, is ramping up its investment in sanitation from $6.5m to $80m a year.  This money – invested not only in research but also building demand for sanitation, as well as advocacy and monitoring programs – is an investment that the World Health Organization estimates will produce a return of 900% in the form of social and economic benefits from improved sanitation, particularly from increased productivity and reduced health care costs.

 

Do you have stories of new technologies being used for better sanitation?  Do you agree that it is one of the most tangible things that can be done for developing nations?  Comment in the section below and tell us what you think.