Bill Gates Leads the Way on Building a Better Toilet

The Gates Foundation hosted “Reinvent the Toilet Fair,” a two-day symposium to which teams from around the globe submitted concepts for a safer, more efficient toilet.

By James Ross Gardner September 19, 2012 Published in the October 2012 issue of Seattle Met

He’s still with us. Same rumpled khakis. Same outdated glasses frames. His voice, atonal and nasally, still grates. But Bill Gates is a better human than we knew. We’ve seen hints for a while. Since he left Microsoft in 2008, he’s tackled education, AIDS in Africa, global water shortages, and revealed that inside the former World’s Richest Person beats a big heart. Even at Microsoft, Bill proved himself an innovator able and willing to sort through the dull stuff—all that software coding that many of us consider too abstract and, worse, unsexy.

Now he’s plunged into an endeavor that’s as unsexy as they come: toilets. 

The rest of us would rather not think about poop. But the truth is, 40 percent of the Earth’s population—mostly in third world countries—either uses unsafe toilets, which leach waste into the water and food supply, or they relieve themselves via open defecation. The result, among other public health disasters, is that every year 2.5 billion diarrhea cases afflict kids under the age of five, and 1.5 million die from it. Access to proper sanitation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also concluded, could improve the lives of women and girls in war-torn countries who “risk sexual assault when they have to defecate in the open or use public facilities.”

It’s a huge, stinky problem. And Gates, bless his nerdy soul, isn’t holding his nose. In August his 900,000-square-foot South Lake Union complex hosted Reinvent the Toilet Fair, a two-day symposium to which teams from around the globe—from China to Norway to Berkeley—submitted their concepts for a safer, more efficient toilet. 

Gates toured the grounds with a retinue of mega geeks (former ’Softie turned culinary god Nathan Myhrvold) and royalty (his highness Willem-Alexander Claus George Ferdinand, Prince of the Netherlands). Among the cutting-edge commodes they eyed was a toilet that converts human waste to fuel; a Rube Goldberg–like contraption that separates clean water from urine; a toilet that converts feces into charcoal.

“If Crapper was reborn today, he would go to the toilet and find it quite familiar.”

A man from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine stuck all 10 fingers into a toilet bowl and slowly pulled them back out. The skin on his hands appeared to move until closer inspection revealed they were crawling with maggots. The larvae of black soldier flies, he explained, will digest the fecal sludge at the bottom of a latrine. 

The winning concept, for which Gates awarded the inventors $100,000 during an afternoon ceremony, was a solar--powered toilet developed at the California Institute of Technology. Gates also announced that the foundation will pony up $3.4 million for a second round of Reinvent the Toilet Challenge grants. (It shelled out $3 million in the first round.)

But first he talked Crapper—Thomas Crapper, the nineteenth-century plumber who popularized the toilet. “The flush toilet that was invented 200 years ago really hasn’t had that many milestones...maybe a handle, toilet paper rolls, multiple toilet paper rolls,” Gates said. “If Crapper was reborn today, he would go to the toilet and find it quite familiar.” 

Then the prince took the podium. Prince Willem-Alexander chairs the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. “Sanitation is the most important invention of the last 150 years,” the prince decreed, citing a British Medical Journal poll. “Even more important than penicillin and all other medication and medical technology we know or rely upon.”

More important even—as the man standing nearby in wrinkled khakis would agree—than software.

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