Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Does a Toilet Do?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has issued a challenge to reinvent the toilet.  Forty percent of the world’s population has no access to sanitation, a nice way of saying they have no place to poop but on the ground, which is not sanitary and in some places not safe.


The idea is to provide something as safe and effective as the flush toilet that is common in the developed west that is also adaptable to places that don’t have the wealth or water to support the infrastructure that makes flush toilets work.

To start my thinking on the subject, I wanted to identify what a toilet does.  I had a few ideas in the middle of the night when I would have rather been sleeping.  Fundamentally, a toilet does three things: it creates a barrier or separation between us and our waste, it is an entry point to as system that conveys waste to treatment and disposal, and it provides privacy for sanitary activity.

A toilet has several barriers.  When we use it, a barrier of air in the bowl separates us from the freshly excreted waste.  After we flush, a barrier of water separates us from the sewers.  When unused, the lid separates us from the clear, but dirty, water in the bowl.  Flushing creates separation by moving waste through plumbing out of our house to a sewer and on out of our neighborhood.

That leads to the second point.  The toilet is connected to a system that conveys waste to treatment and disposal.  In cities, a complex of pipes may carry waste to a large treatment facility.  In a rural area, people may have onsite disposal systems.

Finally, a toilet is a private place to take care of business.  Expectations of privacy vary with culture, as Rose George discovered using an open toilet in China and describes in her book The Big Necessity.   Even with that in mind, I think some degree of privacy is fundamental to toilets, whether it be the significant isolation desired in the west, the segregation of sexes desired by nearly all cultures, or merely the ability to poop and eat in different places.

To me, a toilet in whatever form should meet these three critera:

·         Form a barrier or separation between people and waste,
·         Connect to a system for the treatment or disposal of waste, and
·         Provide sufficient privacy.

No comments:

Post a Comment