Reinvent the Toilet Challenge

Hygiene and sanitation play a fundamental but often ignored role in development, especially in India. Sanitation and hygiene have a direct impact on health. Both water-borne and vector-borne infections are of concern here, with both having long-term impacts and costs on public health.

Poor sanitation does not just have a scientific or medical impact on the community. There are wide ranging social and educational impacts of a lack of sanitation infrastructure in the country, especially for women. Fears over the safety of women and girls, and lack of simple infrastructure such as toilets in schools for girls, mean that girls drop-out on attaining puberty jeopardizing their future and their hope of a better future over the lack of something so basic.  

There has been a massive thrust from the government to improve sanitation facilities across the country through the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan from 2014. However, India is a large and complex country, where a one-size-fits-all solution is neither viable nor practical. Therefore, a large basket of end-to-end solutions is required, so that we have different options for different settings.

Given the central importance of hygiene and sanitation in India, DBT, BIRAC and Gates Foundation launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge under Grand Challenges India, inviting academics, entrepreneurs or an individual with an idea on how to improve the current toilet system or even overhaul the way we currently manage waste.

The mandate of the call was broad to ensure that the most innovative and cutting-edge projects were funded. The call also focused on Indian entrepreneurs and innovators, armed with the belief of the DBT and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that Indians will have the best understanding of the social and economic needs of our fellow countrymen. A clear mandate was also that projects should focus on stand-alone, affordable and environmentally and economically sustainable solutions that do not require connection to the sewer or electrical grid, to enable their deployment in rural and poor urban communities that often need them the most.

Six projects were funded under this program. These spanned the life cycle of the waste collection and management cycle; two of them aimed to redesign the way human waste is collected by employing scientific principles, two projects were providing proof-of-concept for the entire waste management process and one project assessing a scientific proof-of-concept in the laboratory.

  • Eco-toilet from Pradin Technologies, Bangalore

The Eco-toilet project of Pradin technologies Pvt. Ltd. in Bangalore aims to utilize ultrasound to move and settle human waste collected in a specifically designed latrine. This redesigned latrine uses less water and therefore provides a more sustainable solution to collect human waste.

  • Field testing of off-grid, self-sustained, modular, electronic toilet for slums, with solar energy for Indian weather and integrated with mixed waste processing unit, with water, energy/ fertilizer recovery, from Eram Scientific and University of South Florida

This project, undertaken by Eram Scientific Solutions, Kerala in collaboration with the University of South Florida, U.S. aims to develop and demonstrate an innovative sanitation and resource recovery solution for the slum areas in India. The project aims to first design and implement a novel public sanitation platform that meets the specific needs of slums through new designs in Eram’seToilet. The team will subsequently demonstrate closed-loop resource recovery by integrating the slum eToilet with a novel onsite wastewater treatment and recovery solution termed The NEWgeneratorTM. Combining an anaerobic membrane bioreactor (AnMBR) and solar (PV and thermal) technologies, the NEWgeneratorTM will allow for localized recovery of nutrients, energy and water from human wastes. This is accomplished by fully treating and recycling the flush water through the combined biological and membrane treatment system and by recovering energy in the form of biogas from anaerobic degradation. This off-grid and modular treatment system enables the combined e-toilet/ NEWgeneratorTM system to be rapidly deployed to high-density urban areas as well as areas suffering from water scarcity and low-electrical grid connectivity.

The system was set up in a school near Trivandrum in Kerala, where the students are very happy with their new, automated toilets.

  • Use of viral agents, microbial fuel cell and effective recycling strategy to improve the economics human waste disposal from Amrita School of Biotechnology, Kerala

This project by the School of Biotechnology, Amrita University is a proof-of-concept for using viral agents to target and kill pathogens and odor-producing bacteria in fecal waste and also develop for ways to integrate this into waste treatment systems.

The potential of this project is immense as, once thoroughly tested; it will provide a completely natural alternate to managing pathogens in waste water.

  • Hygienic Water-free toilet from Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai

This project, from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai aims to redefine the receiving material for human waste from water to granular material, thereby completely bypassing the need for water in this process. The project aims to redesign the conventional toilet to use a bed of granular that will ensure that there is no fecal staining of the system, fecal matter is cut-off from vectors, does not contaminate surface waters and that the user is always presented with a fresh, clean and dry surface. One of the potential applications for this kind of system, is that it could be used in urban or rural systems where is there is a cultural or social disinclination to use a conventional system as users are used to defecating in the open. The use of the granular material could mimic open defecation, while safely disposing of the waste, which could increase acceptability of these systems.

  • Empowered septic tank as decentralized wastewater treatment system, from BITS Pilani, Goa and Ghent University

This project by the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani Goa campus in collaboration with Ghent University in Belgium, aims to develop a financially affordable and simple-to-operate decentralized wastewater treatment system for a single household as well as for a gated community of 100 people equivalent (25 families) that will produce high quality effluent for safe disposal. The waste treatment system relies on electrochemical reactions and the production of chlorine, to manipulate the pH of the wastewater to destroy pathogens and helminthes. With the addition of a wetland and other elements, the team has designed a complete solution for waste disposal, with a potential for including solar electricity to power the system.

  • Effect of environmental parameters on the treatment of human fecal waste by Black Soldier Fly larvae from Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee

This project from the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee aimed at refining a biological-agent based technology to understand the optimal conditions needed for its efficient use in India. The team tested the optimal environmental conditions, in terms of temperature and humidity, for Black Soldier Fly larvae (BSFL) to reduce the amount of human feces in waste septage. Studies around the world have shown that BSFL are voracious consumers of organic waste in septage and convert this to body mass. This study demonstrated that approximately 1500 BSFL could consume 1 kg of human waste in optimal conditions which suggests that BSFL was a promising agent for fecal sludge management.