The World Needs to Reinvent the Toilet


By Greg Pollowitz, April 9, 2012

To Seriously Improve Global Health, Reinvent the Toilet

The toilet is a magnificent thing. Invented at the turn of the 19th century, the flush version has vastly improved human life.

The toilet has been credited with adding a decade to our longevity. The sanitation system to which it is attached was voted the greatest medical advance in 150 years by readers of the British Medical Journal.

Unfortunately it is an impractical luxury for about two thirds of the world’s 7 billion people because it relies on connections to water and sewerage systems that must be built and maintained at great expense. About 40% of all people, an estimated 2.6 billion of them, have no access to even a minimally sanitary facility, according to the World Health Organisation.

The result is illness and early death. Diarrhoeal diseases, including those linked to improper sanitation, are the second largest killer in the developing world, taking 2 million lives annually. A cholera outbreak in Haiti, which has so far killed more than 7,000, apparently began when sewage from a base (housing Nepalese peacekeepers) contaminated a water source.

Vaccines and medicines against these diseases help. But the ultimate solution is to address the problem at its root.

Doing so requires reimagining the toilet. First, new designs are required for toilets that are hygienic, pleasant, and cheap to make and use, and that work without being connected to a grid. Because such a facility would have to be periodically emptied, ideally excretions would be treated not as waste but either recycled on site or turned into profitable resources.

Toilet Facts

  • The average person spends three years of their life on the “john”. 
  • The average person flushes a toilet about 2500 times a year, while using about eight sheets of toilet paper per day.
  • An estimated 2.6 billion people worldwide do not have access to proper toilet facilities, particularly in rural areas of China and India. 
  • Lack of suitable toilets and sanitation kills approximately 1.8 million people a year, many of them children. 
  • According to Jack Sims, a further 500 million toilets are needed to bridge the gap in sanitation.  
  • The first flushing toilet was invented in 1596 by Sir John Harrington, a British noble and godson to Queen Elizabeth I. 
  • Most toilets flush in the key of E flat.
  • On average, a person will use 22 litres of drinkable water every day flushing a toilet.

Share this with your friends