Bill Gates created a bit of a stir when he appeared onstage in Beijing on Tuesday (Nov 7th) with a jar of human poop.
Gates was a guest and key speaker at the Reinvented Toilet Expo event, which examines new possibilities within the world of sanitation.
“In recent decades, China has made great progress improving health and sanitation for hundreds of millions of people,” said Gates in his opening statement, before adding why they had all gathered: “more than half the world’s population doesn’t have the safe sanitation they need to lead healthy and productive lives.”
It is estimated by WHO that around 2.3 billion people still do not have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent approximately $200m on research in this area over the past seven years.
“I have to say, a decade ago I never imagined that I’d know so much about poop,” Gates joked. “And I definitely never thought that Melinda would have to tell me to stop talking about toilets and faecal sludge at the dinner table.”
Not so much an elephant in the room, but a foreboding jar of excrement, it wasn’t long before the podium adornment was addressed:
“You might guess what’s in this beaker – and you’d be right. Human feces. This small amount of feces could contain as many as 200 trillion rotavirus cells, 20 billion Shigella bacteria, and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs.
In places without safe sanitation, there is much more than one small beaker’s worth in the environment. These and other pathogens cause diseases like diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid that kill nearly 500,000 children under the age of five every year.
Unsafe sanitation also puts a huge economic burden on countries that can least afford it. Globally, it costs an estimated $223 billion a year in the form of higher health costs and lost productivity and wages.” – Bill Gates
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation then outlined plans for a reinvented toilet, one which they plan to initially install in schools and apartment buildings. Once a certain amount of development occurs, the plan is to make them affordable and available to individual households.
“You’re only going to pay hundreds of dollars for a toilet – if it’s really fantastic maybe $500,” Gates told the BBC. “You’re saving all the costs of the waters, the processing products, but we have to bring it down by almost a factor of 10 from what the models are like – but that’s not atypical for new product markets.”
Gates alluded to the fact that this was a disruptive plan, one which he felt could bring about a huge change in plumbing, sanitation and waste management. He then drew parallels between his proposal, and the founding of Microsoft.
“Early in my own life and career, there was a time when “the way things were” in computing was a big mainframe computer that only large corporations and governments could afford. Some of us had another idea. We dreamed about personal computers that anyone could use. A lot of people told us we were crazy. But we believed in it and found other people who shared our vision. Now, people can’t imagine the world the way it was back in the day of the mainframe.
I believe it is possible to achieve something like this in sanitation, and that’s why we have invested more than $200 million over the last seven years working with partners to develop a new generation of non-sewered sanitation technologies.” – Bill Gates