A $350 toilet powered by worms may be the ingenious future of sanitation that Bill Gates has been dreaming about..

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  • stilmans
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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

smecca wrote: MAKERs have already been trained in Ghana, Nigeria, Nepal and soon in Haiti, where Kass notes the success of SOIL, a program that has brought low price toilets there but not without significant outside subsidies.


Steve,

We applaud your collaboration with local makers, but it's important to point out that the toilets we (re.source) developed in Haiti (also with funds from BMGF, as discussed on the forum here and here ) for SOIL's household sanitation service were also designed with and built by local carpenters and craftsmen (makers). Our first 150 units cost $75US each to produce, but these makers have since adapted designs that bring the cost to as low as $35/unit. We continue to work on mass-producible designs that can be deployed at large scale and low cost in various markets, while SOIL is working to optimize and de-risk the service's business model in Haiti such that it can operate long term without subsidy.

One of the biggest failures of the NYT article is that it launches with an attention-grabbing headline disparaging the efforts of BMGF, and then praises SOIL without mentioning that one of SOIL's flagship projects was made possible by funding from BMGF through re.source's collaboration with SOIL. Such omissions spread dis-information and undermine the objective, nuanced public discussions that will spur progress in our sector.
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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

When I read the NYT piece, I immediately created a letter of response (which was not printed). For what's it's worth, I am copying it below.
..Steve
....
Jason Kass’ piece , Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet, gets some of the facts right but is a bit off the mark on others. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded both high- and low- tech projects including some that are specifically applicable to the developing world. The Global Sustainable Aid Project (formerly the Ghana Sustainable Aid Project) received funding to get the Microflush technology out of the lab, married to a filter-digester that uses a macro-organism enhanced aerobic digestion of the solid waste and into the field where the toilets were tested in a village in Ghana. Cost of the prototypes was high but the S-Lab at Providence College has succeeded in getting the cost down through a locally sourced and fabricated model. The GSAP-Microflush toilet now costs a fraction of a cent per use (less than the Peepoo bag) over the lifetime of the system; it is off -grid, nearly closed, sustainable, producing a useful compost after 2 years of 15 uses per day. It flushes on just a cup of water from the previous users handwash and isolates waste from human contact; it has no odor or flies. As a result of funding by the BMGF, we have a locally implemented system that creates a solution to community sanitation while also contributing to community development by creating a small business for the local MAKER, as we call the toilet builder. MAKERs have already been trained in Ghana, Nigeria, Nepal and soon in Haiti, where Kass notes the success of SOIL, a program that has brought low price toilets there but not without significant outside subsidies. Kass correctly urges toilet ownership for the lowest income families but his challenge – “What they need are the kind of toilets that they can buy or build with a few weeks’ savings” – is not feasible. There are no savings for families earning $2 per day! That is why Water.org co-founded by Matt Damon and its water credit program extended to microcredits for household toilet ownership is a key for solving the menace of sanitation in our world.
Stephen Mecca is a professor in the Department of Engineering-Physics-Systems at Providence College

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  • KeithBell
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Re: an interesting talk should be advertised (BlueTech Forum 2012 - Re-Inventing Sanitation for the Bottom of the Pyramid Market, Carl Hensman)

Excellent overview by Carl Hensman; makes me feel much better about BMGF making sanitation a priority. These projects should receive publicity as much or more than Reinvent the Toilet. It would help to stir interest by showing how complex the problems really are . . .

Instead, the NYT article portrayed BMGF negatively. It's also said there's no such thing as bad publicity. But the current media for Reinvent the Toilet makes the project look like a publicity stunt hiding the true BMGF agenda of vaccination. The same can be said of their Reinvent the Condom project. Of course, this is not true, at least I hope not.

What percentage of BMGF budget is devoted to sanitation compared with vaccination in concert with major pharmaceuticals? I'd estimate about 2% or less. Carl Hensman should be receiving a much larger piece of the pie.

The Great Sanitation vs. Vaccination debate continues. Here's a new book detailing how sanitation trumps vaccination every day of the week:
www.naturalnews.com/042946_Dissolving_Il...modern_medicine.html

Indeed, an argument might be made that sanitation and vaccination are opposed to one another. There are no comprehensive studies about collateral damage to flora by vaccination. Yet we have the nerve to vaccinate newborns within 12 hours of birth. Of course, vaccination is a highly controversial subject. The polio vaccine is actually thought to cause polio while the virus is harbored in sewers. Polio appears to be more a sanitation issue than a vaccination issue, yet BMGF budgeting hardly reflects this . . . or does it?

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  • Florian
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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

muench wrote: ops OK, you will say "this is not a technology issue, this is a management issue".


Yeah exactly :) It may have to do with people not knowing about technologies, not knowing how to install them, not knowing how to get support to install them, or not seeing the point of making an effort to install them in the first place. All of which can't be solved by University labs in Europe or the US inventing new technologies.

PS: I am also an engineer ;)

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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

I could imagine the reasons have something to do with not having the right technology available (yet) or about not knowing how to get onto the list of a service provider (as in the Haiti example where 550 households are on the waiting list for those dry toilets + service (forum.susana.org/forum/categories/99-fae...mit=12&start=24#6359) - ops OK, you will say "this is not a technology issue, this is a management issue". But it's a different type of toilet technology they are implementing there (i.e. mobile, urine diversion, dry, external composting).

So anyhow, I am quite sure it has something to do with technology (not everything but also not nothing). But then I have to say that, being an engineer, don't I? :P
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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

muench wrote: they have other reasons for not having toilets

Perhaps. But I am quite sure these reasons have nothing to do with unavailability of the right technology.

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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

Florian wrote:

But these are not the 2.5 billion people we are talking about.


Hmmm, or maybe they are - at least making up a good fraction of this figure? It's not that we have 2.5 billion people living in absolute poverty on the planet... Take the example of India (which is making up a big fraction of the 2.5 billion people - staggering numbers of open defecators - who are not necessarily people at the rock-bottom of the poverty pyramid - they have other reasons for not having toilets, not (only) the poverty reason...).
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  • Florian
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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

JKMakowka wrote: There are many people around the world those livelihoods have increased a lot in the last decades, and which are now at least somewhat interested in upgrading their personal sanitation situation (after mostly satisfying their more pressing needs/priorities). If those would rather install a non-flush&forget system that would be already a huge gain.


Agreed! But these are not the 2.5 billion people we are talking about.

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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

100% agreement, except that at a start it doesn't have to compete with an iphone ;)
Those that want to install a flush-toilet should have an equally attractive solution that includes some sort of treatment or better disposal.
There are many people around the world those livelihoods have increased a lot in the last decades, and which are now at least somewhat interested in upgrading their personal sanitation situation (after mostly satisfying their more pressing needs/priorities). If those would rather install a non-flush&forget system that would be already a huge gain.

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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

JKMakowka wrote: there is a last missing component which in my opinion is not yet addressed: Having a desirable and affordable solution that "scales up itself" while still taking feces treatment seriously.
Currently the only sanitation "solutions" that are increasing in number by actual demand are "flush and forget" toilets.

As nice as EcoSan solutions etc. are, they are currently not really desirable for the typical potential user and thus will not get installed without heavy subsidy.

So what we need is a affordable technology that functions as a EcoSan, but is as desirable as a flush-toilet.


I think you a very right with the analysis of the problem. However, the idea of a new technology that makes a good toilet as sexy and attractive as an iphone, and that makes also poor people craving for that and investing in it as they do now on mobile phones or TV sets, this is pure wishful thinking, I am pretty much convinced.

In places where sanitation is really bad, it is usually so because it is not very high up on the list of personal priorities of people, because people have more important worries like income, housing, water supply, education of children, etc.

The benefits of good sanitation are manifold, but the most important benefits are on a public level (protetction of public health and the environment), not on a direct private level (comfort, status). To most poor people, the comfort and status a good toilet provides is important, but way less important than having enough food, a comfortable house, functioning water supply, etc. No new technology is going to change these priorities, I am sure.

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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

While the critic is definitely justified, I do like the fact that the BMGF's Reinvent the Toilet Programme is looking beyond "just" scaling up existing technology.

Florian is right that "upscaling" is what is needed and also that there are plenty of existing solutions, but there is a last missing component which in my opinion is not yet addressed: Having a desirable and affordable solution that "scales up itself" while still taking feces treatment seriously.
In my experience, the only sanitation "solutions" that are increasing in number by actual demand are currently "flush and forget" toilets.

As nice as EcoSan solutions etc. are, they are currently not really desirable for the typical potential user and thus will not get installed without heavy subsidy.

So what we need is a affordable technology product that functions as a EcoSan, but is as desirable as a flush-toilet.

That said, none of the Reinvent the Toilet solutions so far fit that description in every aspect.

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  • Florian
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Re: NYT critique

muench wrote: One thing is for sure: the added media attention that Bill Gates & Co. (and the grants made by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) have managed to generate for solving the sanitation crisis and for using solutions that include resource recovery is pretty amazing and can only help us all.

As the author of the New York Times article said:

Five years ago, if I’d told people I worked on toilets, they would have surely assumed I was a plumber. Now, they exclaim: “Oh! Isn’t Bill Gates into that?


Agree, as an awarness raising campaing in rich countries, the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge was certainly hugely successful.

My main critiscim is that this programme reinforces the already widespread but plain wrong perception that technology alone can solve the world's sanitation problems.

About BMGF work in general, it would be interesting to see how it's sanitation budget is spent. My guess is that the budget for these research grants to reinvent the toilet is actually rather small compared to BMGF's other sanitation programmes, but that it recieved far more attention by media and ourselves than the other larger programmes.

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