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reinvent the toilet

The first modern flushable toilet was described in 1596 by Sir John Harington, an English courtier and the godson of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1775 English inventor Alexander Cumming was granted the first patent for a flush toilet, and in the late-19th century, a London plumbing impresario named Thomas Crapper manufactured one of the first widely successful lines of flush toilets. Crapper did not invent the toilet, but he did develop the ballcock, an improved tank-filling mechanism still used in toilets today.

Toilets are a key components in an effective sanitation system, and other than design and aesthetics, little has changed in the actual way the toilet operates. For the developed world, with its water and electricity infrastructure, today’s toilets do a great job. 

However, for the 4.5 billion people living in developing countries, the lack of a sanitation infrastructure requires rethinking how a toilet works, and how it can adapt to the realities faced by so many of the worlds inhabitants. Inadequate sanitation and hygiene are estimated to have caused more than half a million deaths from diarrhea alone in 2016. Safe sanitation is essential to a healthy and sustainable future for developing economies.

Along came the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Reinvent the Toilet Challenge aims to create a toilet that:

  • Removes germs from human waste and recovers valuable resources such as energy, clean water, and nutrients.
  • Operates “off the grid” without connections to water, sewer, or electrical lines.
  • Costs less than US$.05 cents per user per day.
  • Promotes sustainable and financially profitable sanitation services and businesses that operate in poor, urban settings.
  • Is a truly aspirational next-generation product that everyone will want to use—in developed as well as developing nations.

Solving the sanitation challenge in the developing world will require breakthrough innovations in technologies as well as systems that are practical, cost-effective, and replicable on a large scale.