The Future of Waste

The blog is back, Happy New Year! Since it is now the future, we’re going to look into something about the future today: the future of toilets. We sell equipment for waste treatment and everything is awesome with science. The science of toilets however, is more than a little dated.

The Same Old Technology

Toilets as we know them are a pretty old idea. The toilet as we know it, a bowl that flushes with water was first thought of in 1596 and eventually patented in 1775. Nothing else in the world has stayed so simple for as long as the toilet. That original concept was a two foot deep bowl that you flushed with about eight gallons of water, and then would dump into a sewer or other waste-disposal location. Given the time period, it was probably acceptable to dump it in the streets, gross as that sounds.

This is essentially the same thing we have today. We have improved the efficiency of the design so it uses less water, made the sewage cleaning process cleaner, and made it smell a little better, but it’s still the same concept, isn’t it? In the intervening centuries we’ve learned about bacteria, viruses, materials science, precision engineering and manufacturing, chemical sanitation, and so much more that could improve the toilet.

You might ask: why fix what isn’t broken? In reality, the toilet is very broken. Our entire waste water system is broken, but it’s problem we’ve only started to grapple with. When someone is sick, they leave behind viruses and bacteria around the toilet. The act of flushing a toilet is actually able to blast these microscopic demons into the air and turn an entire bathroom into a biological nightmare. Washing your hands helps, but you’re still potentially exposed. This causes millions of deaths and billions in healthcare costs annually due to the spread of diseases.

The problem is particularly evident in hospitals, where researchers have found bacteria can spread through the plumbing. Viruses and other little monsters thrive in the wet and essentially waste-nutrient-rich environment, able to spread against the flow of flushing to spread from sinks to toilets to toilets to sinks. When you flush or turn on the water, the little demons get blasted around the room. This is a pretty massive problem, especially with drug-resistant bacteria. We haven’t even talked about all the water this sewage wastes every single day.

Upgrading the Toilet

There is an effort to make a better toilet, better for everyone. In poorer countries this sanitation issue contributes to the spread of diseases like Ebola, which threaten us all. In our modern countries, it makes us unavoidably sick. Eventually it will make us untreatably sick as well.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has spent $200 Million to develop the toilet of the future, and expects to commit the same again to bring it to market. They recently awarded $200,000 in prize money for concepts that will improve the toilet. These are designs that must work without outside help. No water, sewer, or electrical connections, which means they need to work in entirely unheard of ways.

The designs all remove water from waste and sterilize the solids. One of our particular favorites essentially incerates the waste, producing electricity to operate itself and destroying all biological hazards in the process. Other designs use a pressure vessel or chemicals or other cleverness to get the job done.

On the surface, this seems more complicated and perhaps more troublesome than what we already have. Why not just spread more toilets around the world and use chlorox or something to clean them better. Existing toilets are simple, right? You have a little bowl of water and a curved tube so that the water pressure balances until you go to flush it. When you flush it, the force becomes unbalanced and drains the bowl of all waste. There’s all of perhaps ten at most major, moving parts to a toilet. The seat, lid, handle, and float assembly are all you really have to worry about.

That mechanical simplicity belies something orders of magnitude more complex. Our modern toilets rely on a network to support them. We need a system of drains and sanitation centers. We can’t supply the unsanitary corners of the world with more toilets, they’re the cheapest part of the system. We can’t improve our own sanitation because the bacteria and viruses would eventually evolve resistance to every new cleaning solution we try against them. Our only solution, both in the modern and developing world, is to drag the toilet into the future. No matter how complex we make a toilet, it’s never going to raise a hair to the complexity of a sewer system.

The brilliance of these new toilets is also that bacteria can’t evolve their way around them. Diseases will readily adapt to new chemicals. A disease that’s exposed to penicillin-based drugs will eventually change so those drugs don’t interfere with it. Those changes can create new weaknesses, but it still leaves us having to find new solutions for old problems. What a disease can’t evolve resistant to is heat. For a bacteria to survive incineration, the adaptations it needs would make it incapable of surviving in a mammalian body, or at least it would be incredibly weak in our bodies because of the vast temperature differences.

What Should We Expect?

It’s too early to tell the future. Eventually new buildings will switch over to new technologies. Bill Gates tends to think we’ll see these as commercial viable options in the 2030s. Slowly, we’ll build new houses, new offices with them and the toilets we know will fade away like the pay phones, telegrams, and horse drawn carriages

The future is coming, it’s going to be strange, weird, and a billion times cleaner.

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