At the Reinvented Toilet Expo, new commitments to bring innovation to sanitation

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim at the Reinvented Toilet Expo. Photo by: Gates Foundation

SAN FRANCISCO — At the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing, China, Bill Gates placed a beaker of human feces on a platform next to the podium where he stood, then proceeded to talk about poop.

“We are on the cusp of a sanitation revolution,” Gates said. “It’s no longer a question of if, it’s a question of how quickly we can get this new category of off-grid solutions [to] scale.”

Gates talked about the urgency for action, explaining how fecal pathogens kill 500,000 children under the age of 5 each year.

The focus of the conference was the commercialization and adoption of nonsewered sanitation, or off-grid sanitation products that do not require sewers or water lines.

Development finance institutions including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the African Development Bank made the largest ever coordinated set of commitments exclusively for urban sanitation, announcing pledges that could unlock $2.5 billion in financing for sanitation projects in cities, according to a statement.

The Agence Française de Développement committed to double its funding for sanitation globally by 2022, the United Nations Children’s Fund announced a new strategy to scale and deploy product and service innovations for sanitation and increase private sector engagement, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which hosted the event together with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, upped its own commitment to working with partners on solutions for sanitation.

“In 2009, I posed a question to a group of scientists and engineers: Was it possible to leapfrog the long-accepted ‘gold standard’ of sanitation — flush toilets, sewers, and treatment plants?” Gates said. “Could we come up with a more affordable approach that could kill pathogens and keep pace with the needs of fast-growing urban areas — without requiring sewer infrastructure or reliance on scarce water resources or continuous electricity to operate?”

At the expo, companies provided updates on the availability of breakthrough sanitation technologies, such as omniprocessors, or small-scale waste treatment plants that can turn human feces into drinking water, as well as the world’s first pathogen-killing reinvented toilets. Gates emphasized that these technologies and products are business-ready.

“People are uncomfortable talking about defecation and hygiene.”

— Jim Kim, president, the World Bank

LIXIL, a Japanese company that manufactures building materials and housing equipment, announced that it plans to pilot a household-level reinvented toilet, based on a prototype.

“Innovative companies have a golden opportunity to do well by doing good,” said Kinya Seto, president of LIXIL. “We can help jumpstart a new era of safe sanitation for the 21st century by developing solutions that can leapfrog today’s existing infrastructure, functioning anywhere and everywhere.”

Globally, unsafe sanitation costs an estimated $223 billion a year, Gates said. But the reinvented toilet market could generate $6 billion a year worldwide by 2030, he said. The Gates Foundation has spent $200 million over the past seven years on reinvented toilet research and sludge processing solutions, and 20 of these technologies are now available for commercial licensing and production.

On Tuesday, Gates committed an additional $200 million for continued research and development to lower the barriers to risk for the private sector and governments to back what Gates describes as nonsewered sanitation solutions.

“This has not been a development priority,” admitted Jim Kim, president at the World Bank. “People are uncomfortable talking about defecation and hygiene,” he said, calling discomfort a key reason that financing has been scarce.

“We have to drive innovation to make sanitation for all a reality,” Kim said, announcing a new five-year urban sanitation innovation partnership between the World Bank and the Gates Foundation, but admitting that “price points are going to be the critical issue.”

The Gates Foundation explained that private sector involvement could open the door to a larger sanitation sector and value chain with more investment in products, services, and jobs, with a World Health Organization study demonstrating that each dollar invested in sanitation provides an average return of $5.50, but in the meantime, Gates said philanthropy is needed to unlock investment.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.