Pee-Cycling: Bill Gates Is Getting Creative with Human Waste

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz


Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do The GOOD 30-Day Challenge (#30DaysofGOOD), a monthly attempt to live better. Our challenge for July­ Waste less.

Many of us recycle the packaging containing our food, the boxes we use for moving, the clothes we've outgrown. But when it comes to excreting waste, we usually flush and never look back. Bill Gates plans to change that.

The Gates Foundation is coming up with "innovative solutions" to tackle the egregious sanitary conditions people live in when they have no plumbing to eliminate their own waste. This is a fact of life for 1.1 billion people wordwide, according to the World Health Organization. And given the world's water shortage, the solution can't simply be to install Western toilets in every impoverished town. Gates's solution­: Recycle.

The idea of purifying urine for drinking water isn't new. We reported on astronauts who drank purified pee back in 2009, and the process used to recycle urine dates back to the late 1990s. But Frank Rijsberman, the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Department, has a whole host of fresh ideas up his sleeve. Half of his current job description is supporting research projects that come up with new ways to use human excrement. There have been experiments with turning feces into microwaves and using biological bacteria to turn human waste into compost. He also talks about developing a toilet that could transform urine into drinking water. More concretely, a nitrogenous powdered fertilizer made from 400,000 people's urine is already underway.

So what if you could literally waste nothing, even the stuff that comes out of your body­ Let's say it was possible on a grand scale. Would people be able to get past the "yuck factor"­­ You're probably giggling even as you read this. If someone offered to purify my urine, I'd probably come around easily. But to consume or use someone else's pee or feces, I'd need a whole lot of convincing. It's hard to even picture what the infrastructure to recycle our waste would look like, either in the U.S. or in developing countries.

When it comes down to it, though, the need may eventually outweigh the "ick." Our water shortage problem is only getting worse; a 2008 study found that 75 percent of the planet will face freshwater scarcity by 2050. There's just no way the toilet as we know it is a permanent solution for everyone in the world. And the water that we drink is technically recycled, anyway. So if the technology and energy sources are there, we may find our own bodies playing an integral role in the effort to reduce waste—one bathroom break at a time.

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photo (cc) by Flickr user Elvert Barnes