Food discussions rarely center on what's quite literally the other end of eating, but the realities of digestion are a critical issue in the developing world, where the lack of access to safe, affordable and hygienic toilets has created a sanitation crisis for billions of people.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believes a new kind of toilet - one that doesn't rely on water or require a septic system, and transforms human waste into much-needed resources, such as energy, clean water or nutrients - could dramatically reduce deaths from diseases caused by fecal contamination. Last year, the foundation awarded grants to universities interested in creating off-the-grid toilets; The recipients last week joined sanitation technology firms at the foundation's "Reinvent the Toilet Fair" to exhibit the newest innovations in toilet design.
While the fair featured enough fake feces to keep an adolescent boy entertained for hours, it also showcased very big ideas from the world's top sanitation thinkers. Here, a few of their answers to the questions that vex the sanitation world:
How do you get toilets into high-density communities?
One of the few exhibitors to have already put its toilet in the field, the Fontes Foundation has crafted a "modular, knock-down toilet block system." The elevated toilet unit has waterproof walls and fecal sludge storage bladders, making it well-suited to flooded areas such as Haiti. And drawing on the food truck model, the Netherlands' Delft University of Technology exhibited a mobile toilet unit designed for Indian slums, where permanent construction is prohibited. Toilet subscribers can earn points on their mobile phone for using the unit.
What do you do with the waste?
Eat it. Well, not directly. BioCycle, a South African outfit, is proposing to set black soldier fly larvae loose on waste collected from existing latrines. "They love McDonald's, but they'll also eat feces," BioCycle's Walter Gibson said of the demonstration bugs swarming an Egg McMuffin. The plumped-up larvae could be sold as animal feed, creating a new entrepreneurial opportunity and solving a longstanding protein problem in Africa.
"When you get chicken in Africa, it's hard to get any meat," Gibson says. Referring to the standard practice of feeding fish meal to chickens, he adds, "We're catching fish to feed our chickens. So wouldn't it be nice if we fed them protein from waste?"
Thorsten Kiefer of The Great WASH Yatra maintains sanitation can't be improved by toilet technology alone. "You can't just give people toilets and then ask them to use it," he says. "We're trying to create demand for people to want toilets."
Kiefer's group this fall is embarking on a public awareness campaign across India; The rolling "sanitation carnival" will feature toilet quiz shows; performances of sanitation songs and dances and hand-washing elephants. Attendees will be invited to play a board game in which "the goal is to get your shit in the toilet quicker than your opponent," Kiefer explains.
"We're using the power of Bollywood, cricket and everything else that Indians really get excited about to make sanitation cool," he says.
According to Kiefer, many rural Indians could afford a toilet, but choose to spend money on other luxury items instead. In India, more people have access to mobile phones than toilets - by a 200 million margin.
"It's OK to be a guy and shit in the bushes with your friends, but it you don't have a mobile, you're not cool," he says. "We want people to save for toilets. It's a huge paradigm shift."