If there is one technology that symbolizes the global water sector’s future struggles, it would be the toilet. While there have been plenty of advances in farming irrigation and water purification, toilets are still stuck in a Victorian-era time warp. Granted, sanitation is improving across the world. In 1990, only 54 percent of the world’s citizens had access to flush toilets or covered latrines; the World Health Organization says that as of 2015, that metric has improved to 68 percent.
But the fact that toilet technology has not changed much in over 150 years poses several challenges as more countries cope with scarcity of clean water for drinking -- never mind flushing. “The business opportunity of the decade,” is how one TriplePundit contributing writer described the need for scalable and sustainable toilet technology two years ago. That opportunity may very well be alive and well in Madagascar right now.
Loowatt is a startup based in the United Kingdom that has been selling its waterless toilets in Madagascar since 2012. At first glance, Loowatt’s contraption looks like the familiar western toilet. But upon flushing, instead of water, the toilet emits a biodegradable film that envelopes the human waste and then stores it within a large cartridge underneath the unit. The company says its technology eliminates any odors or mess commonly associated with the unsightly and smelly pit latrines. Owners of the toilets can arrange to have the storage cartridges emptied weekly, or more often depending on the frequency of use, and they can also request service via text message. Currently 100 families in the country’s capital, Antananarivo, subscribe to Loowatt’s system.
After all that poo is collected, it is then transported to Loowatt’s biodigester, which processes the waste into liquid fertilizer, compost and even some electricity – well, at least enough power to recharge some cell phones. According to Lina Zeldovich of Quartz, the waste deposited by the approximate 800 people each month creates six tons of fertilizer. The alternative, explained Zeldovich, is for that human waste to end up in a local lake.
Water shortages are not necessarily an issue in Antananarivo, which receives anywhere from seven to 20 days of rainfall a month, depending on the season. The challenge is that across much of the island country, the country has a high water table – in fact, that groundwater allows many of the country’s citizens to grow rice on their property. The problem with flush toilets, therefore, is the constant risk of contamination. And the commonplace pit latrine toilets, while a definite step up from open defecation, are not the best solution for Madagascar, either, as their maintenance is often expensive and fraught with health risks.
Could Loowatt’s technology succeed elsewhere? Civic leaders across the U.S. have touted low-flow toilets as the solution to tackle current and future water woes. The problem with those toilets, however, is that most plumbing relies on the “oomph” of a large flush to shove all that waste through municipal water treatment systems. Add a few “flushable” baby wipes into the mix, and the results are creaky water systems all over the U.S. – discharging water at a rate that ends up negating the water savings from the snazzy new water-efficient toilets.
Whether these Loowatt toilets are used in the parched U.S. Southwest or coastal areas threatened by sea-level rise, they could offer a solution to the wasteful and ineffective toilet. The big question mark, however, is scalability. Zeldovich noted that the Loowatt service in Madagascar costs residents about $4 a month – that price would be exponentially higher in the U.S. and other advanced economies, and then there awaits other challenges such as local regulations and consumers’ queasiness.
But within an industry that poses countless questions but offers few answers, Loowatt is far ahead of the pack. In addition to many accolades and awards, Loowatt has received a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation, which has conducted a global “Toilet Challenge” since 2011.
Image credit: Loowatt/Facebook
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.