It's World Toilet Day, and There Is a New Standard Defining What a Toilet Should Do

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CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ soon toilets won't need drains or water

In a few years people around the world, including you, may be sitting on a different kind of toilet.

According to the UN,

  • 4.5 billion people around the world do not have access to a safe toilet.
  • 1.8 billion people use a drinking water source that could be contaminated with faeces.
  • 892 million people poop out in the open.
  • 62.5 percent of people around the world don't have access to safe sanitation.
Ecuador non functioning toilets

Lloyd Alter/ non-functioning toilets in Ecuador/CC BY 2.0

In the developed world, we use huge amounts of expensive drinking water to wash away our waste, dumping it into oceans and rivers or leaky septic systems, or spending even more money to separate the poop from the water carrying it – just about the dumbest, most extravagantly wasteful system you could imagine, literally pissing away phosphorus and nutrients while we use natural gas and dig giant holes for phosphates to make fertilizer.

Bill Gates talking poop

© Bill Gates in China talking poop and high-tech toilets/ Getty images

But this World Toilet Day, there is actually something to celebrate. A lot of credit is due to Bill and Melinda Gates and their investment of $200 million, but there is now a big target that everyone can aim for. Ed Osann of the NRDC writes that there is a new ISO technical standard for a “Non-Sewered Sanitation System” - a toilet that works without sewers. He defines it:

...a manufactured product that will serve an individual household, a small apartment building, or a public restroom. It must accept and treat all manner of human biological waste, and may accept additional types of household and personal waste if so designed by the manufacturer. ISO has established rigorous standards for the destruction of human pathogens and for limits on noise, air emissions, and odor. And manufacturers must subject their products to a challenging set of tests to demonstrate attainment of these standards. All surfaces of the device are to be cleanable, and there can be no visibility of the deposits of previous users. From the consumer perspective, using a reinvented toilet will not be noticeably different from using a conventional toilet.
ISO toilet

ISO toilet/CC BY 2.0

A toilet that meets this standard will be a very big deal in the developing world, but it will not be inexpensive, and there are many political and social obstacles that will slow it down.

bullitt centre composters

Lloyd Alter/ composting toilets in Bullitt Center/CC BY 2.0

In fact, it is likely that it might make a bigger splash in the developed world, where many people are trying to go zero waste. Tough green standards like the Living Building Challenge demand that waste be managed on site; that's why the Bullitt Center has these big composting toilets.

I suspect that in a few years you might be sitting on one of these high tech ISO 30500 toilets in your own off-grid off-pipe zero waste home. And your grandkids won't believe it when you tell them that once we used to actually use drinking water to just flush this stuff away.