Bill Gates has been thinking about sanitation and toilets ever since he stopped working full time at Microsoft. In those 10 years, sparked by what he saw during increased travel to poorer countries, the billionaire philanthropist has set out to help solve a critical health issue in the developing world.
“I have to say, a decade ago I never imagined that I’d know so much about poop,” Gates said on Tuesday from Beijing, where he helped launch the three-day Reinvented Toilet Expo. “And I definitely never thought that Melinda would have to tell me to stop talking about toilets and fecal sludge at the dinner table.”
Gates showcased once again his ability to have a frank discussion about a fact of human life, and the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is still leading the way in its commitment to commercialization and adoption of off-grid toilet technologies and sanitation systems.
“This expo showcases, for the first time, radically new and pilot-tested approaches to sanitation that will provide effective alternatives for collecting, managing, and treating human waste,” Gates said. “The technologies you’ll see here are the most significant advances in sanitation in nearly 200 years.
“It’s no longer a question of if we can reinvent the toilet and other sanitation systems, he added. “It’s a question of how quickly this new category of off-grid solutions will scale.”
Holding up a container holding human feces, Gates said that he’s famous for once releasing mosquitos during a speech. “This we’re going to keep in the jar,” he said.
Gates said the amount 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 [jar’s] worth in the environment,” he said. “These and other pathogens cause diseases like diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid that kill nearly 500,000 children under the age of five every year.”
To highlight how he and others are combatting that epidemic — and what they’re ready for investors, cities, governments and others to embrace — Gates discussed two innovative technology solutions in his opening remarks.
The first is a small-scale, self-powered treatment plant to process fecal sludge and biosolids from pit latrines, septic tanks, and sewers. Called an Omni Processor, the plant processes human and solid waste to produce both electricity and clean drinking water.
Created by Sedron Technologies, the company just north of Seattle announced in conjunction with Gates’ Beijing appearance that it has been granted a commercialization license for its Janicki Omni Processor from the Gates Foundation.
“This solution changes the economic story of sanitation, transforming what has historically been a parasitic cost to society to a profitable business,” Sedron said in a news release. The company pointed out that Gates went viral in 2015 (video below) when he drank water processed from human waste through its technology.
Gates’ second focus in Beijing is on what they call the “reinvented toilet” — which is actually a collection of technologies that “use different approaches to break down human waste and destroy germs.” The clean water and solids that are left behind can be used as fertilizer or be disposed of safely without further treatment.
Schools, apartment buildings and community toilet facilities will satisfy the initial demand, but Gates can see a new category of reinvented toilets becoming available — as adoption increases and costs drop — for use in people’s homes.
Gates highlighted the host country’s “Toilet Revolution” and action plan for accelerating progress on safe sanitation. Three companies based in China — Clear, Ecosan, and CRRC — are among those with an eye toward what Gates estimates will be a $6 billion a year global business opportunity by 2030.
Development finance institutions including The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the African Development Bank announced commitments at the Expo with the potential to unlock $2.5 billion in financing for City-Wide Inclusive Sanitation projects.
The Gates Foundation has already invested more than $200 million in early-stage R&D aimed at improving sanitation, and in Beijing announced an additional $200 million commitment.
“Today, we are on the cusp of a sanitation revolution,” Gates said. “It’s no longer a question of if we can do it. It’s a question of how quickly this new category of off-grid solutions will scale. We don’t know exactly how long that will take, but we do know it can’t happen fast enough.”
More information about available reinvented toilet and omni-processor technologies and products can be found here.