Gates Foundation Toilet Challenge Will Change the Portable Sanitation Industry

Gates Foundation Toilet Challenge Will Change the Portable Sanitation Industry
Karleen Kos is executive director of the Portable Sanitation Association International. She may be reached at or 952/854-8300.

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Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

-Malvina Reynolds, as sung by Pete Seeger

When that song was popular in the 1960s it didn’t refer to portable restrooms. But anyone who has ever been to a large-scale event knows the image those words evoke is similar to seeing hundreds of units filling the streets. Besides optics, though, portable restrooms share scorn with the “little boxes” in those lyrics. A lot of people are just not terribly fond of them.

That disdain may change over the next 10 years.

In 2016, the PSAI decided to become involved in the development of a standard for “next generation” toilets. Working with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the International Standards Organization (ISO) and representatives from nations around the world, we are helping to write a document that will guide everyone from sanitation officials to entrepreneurs as new toilet technologies are developed for the market.

Be assured these new toilets are coming — and they are impressive.

With help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, innovators from private industry and academia have taken the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Their goal is to create a toilet that:

  • Does not require access to power or an on-site water supply
  • Provides a user experience similar to that of a sewer-connected unit
  • Can be operated for 5 cents (U.S.) a day per user
  • Offers a sustainable business model for entrepreneurs

The Gates Foundation sees toilets meeting these specifications as necessary for addressing the global challenges that occur when 2.6 billion people lack sanitation.  

While many of the current prototypes are not portable or designed for hundreds of uses over a short time period, some of them are. I think the likelihood of viable “next generation” technologies being adapted for the portable restroom market is fairly high. So imagine a portable toilet that is experientially like using a sewer-connected toilet, doesn’t require power or water, and offers sustainable economics for you as a businessperson. Very cool, huh?

My guess is the public will be interested in these new technologies. Everyone wants an “indoor” experience that does not require viewing or smelling waste. It is likely current operators will make the switch to the new models or they will face fierce competition from other companies offering them.

The units we’ve seen so far bring new ideas for how the restroom and sanitation business can be viable. Some offer self-contained waste treatment and fertilizer products for resale. Another model is a service- and route-based business collecting partially processed waste hauled on vehicles that don’t have tanks. In some cases, the service interval for the waste itself is much longer, though cleaning of the unit inside would certainly still need to occur.

I don’t know how soon this will all happen. If I had to guess, it will be between five and 10 years from now. But it will almost definitely happen.

Are you ready to start thinking outside the little boxes?


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