When I taught human security and peacebuilding, which can be quite an overwhelming topic, I used to make the last residency session ‘how to change the world on a budget’.
And I presented three stories – SODIS (solar water disinfection); sanitary protection for women (meeting a need while creating jobs); and the story of “Mr. Toilet”, sanitation activist Jack Sim. All stories about common human needs that could be addressed effectively once people were engaged, collectively and collaboratively.
Researching today’s story, I googled Mr. Toilet and discovered that they’d made a movie about him, which doesn’t surprise me – his story is compelling, and he is a genuinely funny man. There would be chuckles all over the room when I showed his 2015 TED talk, which he called “Why we need to talk about shit”.
It is a serious topic but he delivers his message with humour – which was not common on talking about defecation and toilets when he started doing it in 1998. And it is that approach that I was encouraging learners to think about – that it doesn’t necessarily need huge amounts of money to create awareness and change and start to solve problems. Humour is a great way to deliver a serious message.
“What we do not talk about, we cannot change,” he says. And safe sanitation affects everyone, rich and poor alike. But – until Jack Sim – toilets were not something that people talked about in public. Politicians were happy to pose for pictures beside water projects, but not beside toilets, and water issues overshadowed sanitation needs on the public agenda.
Jack Sim grew up poor in Singapore. When he was a child, his family had no toilet – he went outside, like all his neighbours. Things improved rapidly in Singapore as he grew up, and he became a successful businessman who had created 16 businesses. Then, when he hit 40, he began looking for meaning in his life.
It was when he discovered that 2.5 billion people in the world don’t have access to proper sanitation, and that 1.5 million children in the world die unnecessarily as a result, that he found his cause. And then his challenge was to turn talking about toilets into a ‘media darling” – with no budget.
In 2001, he created the World Toilet Organization and began talking about it everywhere. This soon led to World Toilet Day being marked in cities around the world. And by 2013, when the UN officially recognized Nov. 19th as World Toilet Day, he had succeeded in getting toilets, and safe sanitation, on the world agenda. And by doing so, he helped people want to have toilets.
Having captured peoples’ attention with his humour, he would turn attention to actually addressing the problem. That meant focusing on the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ – the poorest four billion of the world’s seven billion inhabitants – who so often are without sanitation. He began teaching people how to make toilets cheaply, and make money doing it – and he promoted it as part of a range of activities that could benefit BoP consumers.
His message was heard so widely, and his WTO became so influential, because of his adept and inventive use of humour.
And it is a serious message, not just from a health standpoint. Lack of access to healthy sanitation is estimated to have cost the global economy US$222.9 billion in 2015, up 22% from 2010 figures. But – as he saw – meeting that need is also a serious business opportunity.
The Toilet Board Coalition, created in 2015 to drive private sector engagement in creating universal access to sustainable sanitation products and services, now promotes the Sanitation Economy as the “biggest opportunity in a century to transform sanitation systems into a smart, sustainable and revenue generating economy”, which could be worth billions. It estimates the sanitation economy opportunity to be worth $62 billion in India alone by 2021.
Part of that opportunity involves reprofiling human waste as “toilet resources” which can be converted into other valuable resources. For example, the 33 billion litres of waste generated by 15.6 million global tea workers and their families could be “converted into one of the following: 7.6 billion MJ of biofuel, 12 billion MJ of Biogas (heat), 1.4 billion kWh (electricity), 2 million tonnes of co-compost at a 3:1 ratio, regenerating 16,000 tonnes of Phosphorus, 17,000 tonnes of Potassium, 23,000 tonnes of Nitrogen.”
In all, 3.8 trillion litres of such toilet resources are currently lost or untreated but could be part of a circular economy approach that connects “the biocycle, using multiple forms of biological waste, recovering nutrients and water, creating value-adding products such as renewable energy, organic fertilisers, proteins, and more.”
Based on their four years of work between 2015 and 2019, the Coalition has offered a possible vision for 2025 – “what if all cities and businesses no matter their size or location set the goal to provide 100% access to 5-star sanitation, reuse 100% of the toilet resources (formerly called human waste) generated and share monitoring data to global monitoring systems to ensure continuous improvements to the system – and that sanitation is globally accepted as a human right that helps to meet water positive, carbon positive and other sustainable business targets”.
Meeting in Pune, India, on World Toilet Day 2019, 400 of the world’s Sanitation Economy leaders offered this vision:
“Going into this new decade, we are not only asking how business can bring new solutions for sanitation, we are also asking how sanitation can bring new solutions across business operations and sectors – and be a net contributor to many critical sustainable development issues such as climate change, food security, health, human rights, and the empowerment of women and girls.
“Sanitation re-imagined as a Sanitation Economy is no longer an access and waste story. In 2019 sanitation is a human rights story, a resource story, a data story and a consumer story. All critical for addressing material business risks and critical for future business growth in tomorrow’s markets, today.”
Over the past 20 years, Jack Sim has definitely put toilets on the world agenda.
Why we need to talk about shit. Jack Sim, TEDxSalford.
World Toilet Day. UN.
Sanitation Economy. Toilet Board Coalition.
The urine revolution: how recycling pee could help to save the world. Nature, Feb. 9, 2022