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Feature Design

Excretory Glory

Eric Andre, Eric Yahnker, and Graham Hill redesign the toilet.

September 22, 2013

During one particular late-night editorial meeting, when all of us here at GOOD HQ probably had a few too many, we came up with the idea to send briefs detailing global problems to some of our most creative friends with one simple instruction: to design a solution to the problem in less than 30 minutes, a time frame that would make them think about the problem, but limit the extent to which it might overwhelm them. Call it "The Half-Baked Design Challenge." Some of the solutions are comical. Some are super thoughtful. Some, to be perfectly frank, are mildly disturbing. But all of them engage creatively with a problem in search of a solution, and we think that's a good thing. In this installment, we redesign the toilet.

One out of every three people on the planet— 2.5 billion people in the world— don’t have access to a toilet. Yeah, we’re in deep doo-doo. About 1.4 million children worldwide die every year from contact with raw human feces. That averages out to one child every 20 seconds, more than the annual death tolls from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. 

Human shit contains hundreds of pathogens that are harmful to humans, including E. coli and salmonella, and is a significant factor in spreading infectious diseases. That typically happens when untreated human waste enters the water supply to be later indirectly ingested by an unwitting farmer or bather or young child, a scenario far more common in the world’s poorest countries than in the richest. Indeed, poverty is the leading risk factor for many sanitation-related infectious diseases. The modern toilet would be a welcome addition to poor communities. 

Just one problem: The porcelain throne, as we currently know it, isn’t sustainable. When the first iteration of the modern flush toilet was invented in 1596 by British courtier Sir John Harington, the global population was roughly 550 million people. It was a brilliant invention that vastly improved human health, but progress in design has largely petered out since the ubiquitous toilet featuring an s-shaped bend in the pipe was developed in 1775. 

Our global population has exponentially soared since 1596, by an astounding 6.7 billion people, and we simply do not have enough water to maintain that kind of growth without sucking dry the planet’s already strained water supply. In response to this crisis, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued a challenge in 2011 to redesign the toilet, calling on researchers and designers to change the toilet from an object out of reach of the bottom third of the world’s population to something usable by all. 

The toilet, reimagined, could operate without electricity, without the use of piped-in water, without access to a sewer system to sanitize human waste, and could process waste into a form that could be released into the environment safely, without risking human health.

Prototypes of new toilets—designed with the world’s poor in mind and capable of keeping our increasingly scarce water resources free of human waste contaminants —are in development. But the stall doors are still wide open to redesign the toilet for a higher purpose: reducing the disease burden among the world’s poorest and saving the planet’s strained water supply in the process.

Eric André: Television Host, The Eric André Show

Maybe they could make a little clay hole that fire shoots out of and cooks your poop. You could also put a bunch of Dave Matthews Band CDs in it.

Eric Yahnker: Artist

Poop Looper, will deliver our fecal matter to a future generation to take care of later...“Kick your crap down the road with every flush!”™

Graham Hill: LifeEdited, Founder

In the search for the what’s next in toilet tech, perhaps we should ask what came before us? The answer—something much of the world already does—is squatting. Squat toilets are found throughout the world, and typically consist of a ceramic hole in the floor with a couple of foot mounts. Modern toilets are flushable, using about 2 to 3 liters of water versus 6 to 13 for a standard flush toilet. Squatting is better for your bowels. It also promotes quadriceps strength. The only contact you make with a squatter toilet is with your feet, so it is also more sanitary. And a squatter takes up virtually no room in your bathroom. My solution would be to put the squatter with a trapdoor under a shower, then incorporate a greywater system that uses shower and sink water runoff to flush the toilet. That would make for an extremely efficient, minimal footprint toilet.

For more fully-baked solutions, check out our companion piece about the future of the toilet. 

Illustrations by Kate Bingaman-Burt