This Woman’s Innovative Toilet Design Could Save Countless Lives (And The Environment)

This Woman’s Innovative Toilet Design

Could Save Countless Lives (And The Environment)

Photo Courtesy of inhabitat.com

In today’s society, a new toilet design isn’t something to be fawned over. That is, until you realize what to many of us seems like a common household item is an unattainable luxury to billions of people around the world living without access to improved sanitation facilities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2.5 billion people live without access to improved sanitation facilities, which are defined as having a flush or pour toilet, a ventilated improved pit latrine, pit latrine with a slab or a composting toilet. To put that into perspective, that’s nearly 35 percent of the world’s population that is susceptible to deadly fecal-oral diseases, like diarrhea, that kill millions every year.

In an effort to resolve this issue, Cambridge, Massachusetts entrepreneur Diana Yousef and her team at startup change:WATER Labs are close to launching an innovative waterless toilet that will help alleviate the aforementioned dismal sanitary conditions around the world.

"Diana Yousef and her team at startup change:WATER Labs are close to launching an innovative waterless toilet that will help alleviate the aforementioned dismal sanitary conditions around the world." Photo Courtesy of Cartier Women's Initiative Awards

“Sanitation is so fundamental to every community,” says Yousef. “In the developed world, we take it for granted, but from Mumbai to Dubai to Fort Lauderdale, when toilets aren’t available or sewage infrastructure is non-existent or breaking down, the problems of sewage management can be very scary.”

The new toilet uses an innovative polymer pouch that aggressively evaporates the liquid of human waste, getting rid of more than 95 percent of the waste without the need for power or heat. As Yousef puts it, “We essentially shrink-wrap crap.” A single toilet can get rid of the daily waste of 15-20 people and can get rid of a day’s worth of waste from a single person in about an hour. Moreover, the polymer pouch used in the toilet is very cost effective. It takes only $0.40 worth of the material to vaporize the waste of 20 people for an entire month.

From an environmental standpoint, the toilet also makes sense as methane makes up 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is extremely potent—about 30 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Open sewage contributes 4-6 percent of man-made methane emissions and once in production, Yousef’s innovative toilet will help stop the release of the gas substantially, producing nothing more than water vapor. She estimates that one day, her toilet will limit the amount of methane emissions equal to the carbon capture capacity of a forest the size of Spain.

Yousef’s invention will also help with a large problem facing women in areas that lack improved sanitation. A staggering number of women drop out of school due to a lack of safe toilets. Not only do young women not feel comfortable without access to a proper toilet when they begin their periods, but women also put themselves in a vulnerable position to being raped or abused without a proper facility to use the toilet.

One region hit very hard by these effects in India, where nearly 55 percent of the population, or roughly 597 million households, do not have proper sanitation access. Because of this, 23 percent of young women drop out of school, a problem that does not bode well for the future of women in India, who are already highly marginalized. The women in India living without proper sanitation also face an increased risk of being attacked. 30 percent of women living in these conditions have been physically or sexually assaulted due to this problem, something Yousef believes is unacceptable in today’s society and something she is passionate about improving.

Although not yet in mass production, the first prototype of the toilet will be put into field testing this spring on a Hopi Indian reservation in Utah. Final adjustments and tests are currently in progress on the prototype to get it ready for field tests and Yousef is hopeful to transition to the production stage shortly thereafter.

"Yousef’s innovative toilet will help stop the release of the gas substantially, producing nothing more than water vapor." Photo Courtesy of the Boston Globe

For her novel invention, Yousef has been selected from nearly 3,000 applicants from 30 countries as one of the eighteen finalists for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an international business plan competition created in 2006 to identify, support and encourage projects by women entrepreneurs. She will receive $30,000 in funding and travel to Singapore to compete to become one of the six overall winners who will be awarded $100,000.

"Yousef has been selected from nearly 3,000 applicants as one of the eighteen finalists for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards." Photo Courtesy of TheEditorial

Beyond looking to solve a global sanitation and women’s safety issue, there was another reason for Yousef starting her own company—to be a great role model for her two daughters. Having faced discrimination in her career for being a woman, she wants to teach her girls that they can be completely in charge of their own paths.

She admits starting change:WATER Labs wasn’t an easy undertaking, but she realized she wanted to do something important and be the ‘mistress of her own destiny.’

Adding to the challenges of starting her company, a recent report from Fit Small Business ranked Massachusetts 46 out of 50 in terms of support given to female entrepreneurs. Yousef doesn’t necessarily feel that information is true though, believing the Boston area has an abundance of resources available for her to develop her business further. For Yousef specifically, that may be due to the fact that her company falls into the biochemistry and health sectors, two areas known for success in Boston. What’s also interesting to note is that all three of the North American finalists selected for this year’s Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards are from the Boston area, providing another piece of evidence that Massachusetts may not be as unsupportive for female entrepreneurs as many think.

As change:WATER Labs progresses and one day brings its innovative toilet solution to the many in need across the world, Yousef’s impact will not only inspire her daughters, but will reach the future female leaders across the world that will one day make an impact of their own.

Brock Thatcher

Brock Thatcher is a communications professional who has contributed to a number of publications where he has covered entrepreneurship, media & entertainment, and the workplace.

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