Toilets are rife with politics. The things we do immediately before and after using the toilet are subject to all sorts of social and cultural power structures. Even getting a toilet in the first place can be swept up in the larger political debates about development and infrastructure investment. Everything from global finance to local political corruption can determine whether or not any given person on this planet gets to relieve themselves with comfort and dignity. It is a sad but true fact that an estimated 2.5 billion people do not have regular access to a toilet. Enter “The Nano Membrane Toilet” an invention from Cranfield University which uses state-of-the-art nano technology to make a toilet that does not require plumbing. Instead it needs batteries, regular servicing of complex and proprietary parts, and safe, dry removal of wax-coated solid waste. The decision to help fix this enormous problem is laudable but the Nano Membrane Toilet side-steps the real social and economic problems that keep people in unsanitary conditions. It might even create new, unintended sanitation problems.
I’ll get this out of the way: the only reason I have lived in homes with not just one but two toilets, and other people have to walk miles for toilets that are shared by hundreds of people, is because we live under an immensely unfair and unjust system called capitalism. Other systems have been unfair too (Feudal peasants had to poop in buckets while their lords relieved themselves on resplendent wood-carved thrones.) but that doesn’t make present inequalities any more excusable. What is more important than just blaming capitalism though, is looking at how inequalities persist even in the face of well-resourced groups looking to mitigate those inequalities. Put another way, why hasn’t the millions of dollars and award-winning talent put into the Nano Membrane Toilet gone towards political and social programs that finance the installation of regular old plumbing? Why does it seem easier to built a toilet out of experimental polymers than just build a sewer?
The historian of technology Leo Marx once pointed out that we are keen to conflate technological breakthroughs with social progress: automated cars and smartphones are seen as indicators of an advancing society not just a set of technical achievements. It makes sense then, that we also cast challenges like ending poverty or unsanitary conditions as technical problems in need of inventions, rather than social problems in need of political action. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s support for the Nano Membrane Toilet is a good example of this. Rather than fund governments to build out their sewage systems or provide monetary assistance to employ more sanitation workers, or even give scholarships to people who want to go into public utility management and help their own communities, the Gates Foundation wants to build things that negate the need for public sanitation systems as we know them.
The Nano Membrane Toilet is also subject to the “appropriate technology” critique. Appropriate technology is an approach developed in the 70s that asked technologists, engineers, and, designers to consider the larger context of their creations: If something breaks does the user have to rely on a single company (or person?) to make expensive repairs or can they fix it themselves? A battery operated device might be problem-free in a modern home but if it is put in a home with a leaky roof or a dirt floor, the whole thing might behave differently. Then there is the issue of unintended consequences that come from the wide-spread adoption of a new technology. What happens if the sophisticated materials in the toilets end up in open waste dumps? Once there is a company selling these toilets are they going to lobby local governments against any future expansion of utility services in the future?
I do not want to make it sound like approaching a social problem with a designed object is always a bad approach. My own research actually revolves around an invention of sorts, but rather than innovating in new areas of material science my colleagues and I have been trying to design something that could be manufactured locally and easily repaired. Our Open Source Condom Vending Machine (OSCVM.org) is an attempt to build reliable, low-cost condom vending machines in Ghana. All the schematics and designs are open and available to the public and we’ve partnered with a maker collective called The Creativity Group to build the machine. If we’ve innovated at all, it has been in the area of social relations, not technology. You can buy a well-built condom vending machine at Costco, but good luck getting it to Ghana. And even if you did get one there, buying a machine that was built in China or even the United States, doesn’t employ as many people as a machine built where it is used. That is why the machine’s internal mechanics are very simple to make and easy to repair. We wanted to reduce the barriers to making your own machine. The OSCVM is also an opportunity to buy condoms in private, something that is difficult to do in the crowded pharmacies and markets. Rather than try to invent something brand new, we worked to build something old in a new way.
If the Nano Membrane Toilet saves lives, then we should call it a success. But we need to take a harder look at how we frame these sorts of problems. Do we need cutting-edge nano polymers to solve a problem as old as where to put our waste? Or should our creative efforts be focused in re-arranging governance structures and financing so that proven technologies can serve more people more of the time?