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Touring A Better Way to Go Exhibit in Seattle

FLUSH recently visited the Bill and Melinda Gates Discovery Centers’ new exhibit, A Better Way to Go: Toilets and the Future of Sanitation, in Seattle, Washington (US)! The tour was fun, and we're happy to share highlights.

A Better Way to Go at the Gates Discovery Center (Credit:FLUSH/K Worsham)

A Journey of Reinventing the Toilet

The exhibit shows how we can rethink the traditional flush toilet experience - from mouth to field and back again. It started with acknowledging the essential and undeniable truth that everybody poos, but our experiences with this experience are inherently different. First, the exhibit shows how people go to the toilet and how the experiences look globally. It then highlighted that the world's complex inequalities are very clearly seen in the sanitation systems seen across the world, causing avoidable diseases and deaths and degrading environments due to poo pollution. It then invites the patron to open their mind about the opportunity to…well, reinvent the toilet into a more sustainable and equitable experience. Below, we’ll go through some of the highlights!

Images of the exhibit, A Better Way to Go (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Gates’ Toilet Time

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) started funding sanitation initiatives in 2000; since then, it has given $1.02 billion to projects including sanitation, about 1.1% of its giving from then to now; most of its funding has focused on education, global health, and agriculture. In 2005, BMGF formally created a water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) program. The program has focused on the toilet system hardware (mostly on Reinvent the Toilet) and people's parts of sanitation, such as government policies, standards, and professional development (in a way, rethinking the toilet culture).

Images of the exhibit, A Better Way to Go (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Making Toilets Cool Tech

The exhibit championed its Reinvent the Toilet investments. In a way, it celebrated making toilet tech cool, reminiscent of the software and tech world that Bill Gates pioneered.

The exhibit details what happens after the “flush”. This looks different for houses connected to sewer pipes (typically city and suburban homes) and those off-grid (often those in rural areas or those without access to sewers in urban areas).

A poster in the exhibit about sewers vs. "off-grid" sanitation systems (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

The exhibit proposes the idea of having high-tech and off-grid poo treatment systems in each house, which would give families a chance to use their water over and over again. The accumulated treated poo would have to be emptied annually. This machine could make sense for remote homes. Similarly, the exhibit showed a toilet system built to accommodate public spaces such as schools and clinics by Enviro Loo. This toilet system includes a whole treatment center that uses wind and solar energy.

Off-grid solutions at the exhibit (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

It also showed the inner workings of two mechanical toilets that almost looked like steampunk creations. The first toilet was created by Cranfield University in the UK, and the second by Georgia Tech. They both look like typical toilets, but they do slightly different things – the first burn the poo into ash, and the other pasteurizes poo and squeezes them into solid blocks – while cleaning the water for flushing again.

High-tech reinvented toilets at the exhibit (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Some passing comments were overheard asking how much these toilets cost to buy and install. This was a question worth asking: How would these kinds of toilets translate into different parts of the world with hot climates and less money to pay for the luxury of a next-generation toilet? It was a good reminder for water and sanitation professionals to make sanitation solutions more approachable, especially for those not working in the sector.

Making Poo Good

Another point of the exhibit was to invite patrons to reconsider how they think about poo as a waste product, but instead as a useful ecological saving grace.

Beautiful terrariums in the exhibit (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

The exhibit beautifully displayed terrariums with composted poo used as the soil for growing vibrantly healthy plants. Ultimately, all poo can be treated for germs and composted to be made into nutritious soil that plants love growing in. The exhibit works to encourage that poo is not waste or gross stuff but, instead, a good and essential resource that we need to keep our food system going. The signage asked patrons to consider – could we do better with our poo in the 21st century?

VIllage Green by Vaughn Bell (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

The exhibit even made this interactive! One room had 2 clear greenhouses lifted so that people could stand in and see all of the happy plants close up, inviting people to see the legacy of our poo when we think of it differently. This piece was called Village Green: Loopscapes by Seattle-based artist Vaughn Bell.

Inside Village Green by Vaughn Bell (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

It then shares that toilet flushes are a wasteful use of clean drinking water, with the average US person flushing 77 gallons weekly. It also proposes that maybe water-based toilets aren't necessarily the future of toilets, sharing some of the hazards of existing sewer systems, such as fatbergs. If you don't know what that is: it's exactly what the word describes - a giant hunk of fat that comes from the different things that people put down the toilet - from poo bits to soap and dairy products to the damaging household items people should never flush, like wet wipes and floss.

The perils of fatbergs (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Making Poo Personal

There's a hallway that includes fun interactive surveys about poo health! It shared the Bristol Stool Chart, what it means for poo to be loose or pellets, and detailed the journey of food from taste to elimination. It explained what poo contains and how it can be used as an indicator of full-body health and foods that help keep your stomach from getting angry (aka fiber, fermented foods, healthy fats, and phenols). It also explained the perks of probiotics for keeping a healthy gut and even combatting malnutrition in children.

Your poo and you info at the exhibit (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Letting FLUSH Talk Toilets

FLUSH was at the exhibit for its grand opening, and the Gates Discovery Center generously offered us a booth to share some toilet history with visitors. We were happy to talk with engaged and excited community members for 4 hours, fielding questions about how toilets at their homes worked and how compost toilets could be improved to be easier to use. The center also shared little cakes shaped like toilet paper rolls as part of the opening. The exhibit has a lot of fun Instagramable backdrops for the passing influencer.

TP cake and FLUSH at our booth (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

In reflecting on the exhibit, it was exciting to see an exhibit for the public that shares a lot of the work FLUSH and our clients champion internationally. We were happy that so many people not in the industry showed up, too, and seemed genuinely excited about the exhibit. It was also interesting to see the complicated nature of toilets being explained to visitors, and we wondered how practical and inspiring it was for visitors to think about rethinking their own toilet experiences or if it was just a novel experience for them. The tech seemed high – perhaps too high – for it to be seen as anything but futuristic and out of reach for most households.

Some of our friends were with us at the exhibit, and we discussed the exhibit’s merits and opportunities to do better, or at least more. Sarah Nahar shared how nice it was to see art pieces celebrating sanitation's ecological significance and discussions by those who create high-tech contraptions. She wondered if a piece was missing for the Reinvent the Toilet initiatives because of the heavy focus on marketable solutions when sanitation has been subsidized and not a strictly market-based effort. Sophia Pan felt the exhibit was nice and slick but a little unrelatable for addressing the sanitation crisis in communities without access. She felt like most people in the US have no idea how sewers work or know anything about dry toilets, and it could have been a bit easier for people to connect with the little information they often have already about toilet systems.

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