20 August 2011

Toilets and Cell Phones

Yes, there is a connection between toilets and cell phones, and no, it doesn't have anything to do with dropping your phone in the toilet.  I'm not the biggest fan of cell phones, but they've revolutionized communication around the world for one simple reason.  They work.  As long as there's a cell phone tower around (and there is just about everywhere now), you can use a cell phone.  If your city's phone system has crumbled into dust or never existed, it doesn't matter.  Cell phones are separate from poor infrastructure.

About a month ago there was a crop of articles (mostly amusing or bemused) about Bill and Melinda Gates granting $42 million to 8 universities around the world to fund new toilet designs.  It's a great idea because right now billions of people don't have access to a decent toilet of any type. That's not likely to change with current toilets because there has to be a significant municipal system in place to use a toilet at all.  If you're not connected to both functioning water and sewer and possibly electricity, a flush toilet doesn't do you any good even though it's an efficient and sanitary design. 

It's a pretty daunting project to get water and sewer access to everyone.  In short, it's not going to happen, just like no one waited around for phone lines; we just bought cell phones. 

So the Gates Foundation wants a different toilet available. It has to function without water or electricity and there must be sanitary disposal of the waste (preferably producing something useful), and it has to be cheap to operate.  That's a pretty tall order, but it's really the only way to begin to solve the problem.

(And no, the composting toilets that are already out there don't fulfill all the requirements.  If you have low population density composting toilets could work, or outhouses (that's the norm in my town and it works), or any number of other solutions that have been in place for a long time, but high-density areas need something that has not yet been invented.  And thank you to the Gates Foundation for tackling something like this- toilets aren't exactly attention-grabbers.)

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