Sanitation is “the business of the decade,” Cheryl Hicks, chief executive of the Toilet Board Coalition, said last week on World Toilet Day. “Half the world needs toilets. They don’t have them because the infrastructure is too expensive for governments.”
United Nations and World Health Organization figures show that 4.5 billion people globally lack basic sanitation facilities, and 2.1 billion citizens do not have any safe and secure access to toilets. In addition, at least 1.8 billion people use a source of drinking water that is fecally contaminated. Unsafe sanitation causes diseases like diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid, which combined kill half a million children under the age of five every year. 80 percent of the wastewater generated by humans flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused.
This colossal global sanitation issue costs the economy $233 billion annually in health care costs, decreased income and productivity – and is most severe in the poorest and most populated regions of Africa and Asia.
The result is an enormous market potential for new products that can safely address this universal human need for sanitation, benefitting both business and society. Governments, investors and the private sector are already working together to “reinvent” toilets by using disruptive sanitation technologies that can destroy germs and process human waste into by-products like electricity, potable water, and fertilizer; and the most innovative ones are off-grid, i.e., without being connected to sewer pipes or water lines.
The reinvented toilet market is conservatively estimated to become a $6 billion global annual revenue opportunity by 2030, with more business opportunities across the sanitation value chain, according to a recent Boston Consulting Group analysis. A 2014 WHO study concluded that every dollar invested in sanitation provides an average economic return of $4.30.
A key player in this space has been the Gates Foundation, which since 2011 has invested over $200 million in research to develop next-generation sanitation solutions. During the recent Reinvented Toilet Expo held in Beijing, Bill Gates committed another $200 million to the cause. So far, 20 reinvented toilet and omni-processor technologies (small scale waste treatment plants) and products in the Foundation’s portfolio are ready for production and commercial licensing.
The Reinvented Toilet Expo showcased many such market-ready toilets and omni-processor technologies from companies in India, China, Thailand, and the United States. Also at the Expo, the Japanese company LIXIL announced plans to launch a reinvented toilet prototype for household use.
The host of the Reinvented Toilet Expo, China, is one of 193 countries working towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) for water and sanitation, the goals of which include for everyone to have access to adequate sanitation and to end open defecation by 2030. China, with the world’s largest population at over 1.3 billion, is home to 57 million households that do not have their own sanitary toilet – and over 20 million people practice open defecation. In 2015, China’s President Xi JinPing launched China’s Toilet Revolution with the goal of expanding access to clean toilets to everyone.
India, the second most populous country in the world, also is coping with a huge sanitation crisis. The $20 billion “Swachh Bharat Mission – Clean India Campaign,” launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, aims to provide universal access to toilets to all Indians by 2019, eliminate open defecation and build 111 million toilets.
“It’s no longer a question of if we can reinvent the toilet . . . It’s a question of how quickly this new category of off-grid solutions will scale,” Bill Gates said during the Reinvented Toilet Expo. Reinvented toilets now even have their own ISO technical standard, which was introduced last month.
Businesses have an important role in addressing the sanitation crisis. The development of the emerging “Sanitation Economy” is a one way to tackle this problem, as it urges businesses to invest in providing toilet products and service innovation (toilet economy), reducing costs and recycling toilet waste into resources (circular economy), and optimizing data for operating efficiencies, maintenance, and health insights (smart sanitation economy). Hence companies looking for new market opportunities and those determined to align with the SDGs must realize that sanitation is central to the larger sustainability development agenda.
Image credit: WorldToiletDay.info