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Toilet innovators sanitize waste, use it to power cities, cellphones

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 7:48 p.m.

NEW DELHI — Who would have expected a toilet to one day filter water or charge a cellphone?

These are lofty ambitions beyond what most of the world's 2.5 billion people with no access to modern sanitation would expect. Yet, scientists and toilet innovators around the world say these are exactly the types of goals needed to improve public health amid challenges such as poverty, water scarcity and urban growth.

Scientists who accepted the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's challenge to reinvent the toilet showcased their inventions in the Indian capital on Saturday. The primary goals: to sanitize waste, use minimal water and produce a usable product at low cost.

Some toilets collapsed neatly for easy portability into festivals, disaster zones or slums. One emptied into pits populated by waste-munching cockroaches and worms.

A Washington-based company, Janicki Industries, designed a power plant that could feed off the waste from a small city to produce 150 megawatts of electricity, enough to power thousands of homes.

The University of the West of England, Bristol, showcased a urine-powered fuel cell to charge cellphones overnight.

The World Bank estimates the annual global cost of poor sanitation at $260 billion, including loss of life, missed work, medical bills and other related factors. India alone accounts for $54 billion — more than the entire GDP of Kenya or Costa Rica.

India is by far the worst culprit, with more than 640 million people defecating in the open and producing a stunning 72,000 tons of human waste each day — the equivalent weight of almost 10 Eiffel Towers or 1,800 humpback whales.

Public defecation is so acceptable that many Indians will do it on sidewalks or in open fields.

Meanwhile, 700,000 children every year die of diarrheal diseases, most of which could have been prevented with better sanitation.

“In the West, such things are a nuisance, but people don't lose their lives,” said Christopher Elias, president of global development at the Gates Foundation. “People don't immediately realize the damage done by infections coming from human waste.”

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