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The Future Of The Toilet

In the latest installment of our Half-Baked Design Challenge, we gave some of our most creative friends 30 minutes to redesign the toilet. Their solutions are at once absurd, profound, and probably not the answer to all our problems, so we also rounded up the fully-baked ideas at the forefront of this global sanitation issue.

In the latest installment of our Half-Baked Design Challenge, we gave some of our most creative friends 30 minutes to redesign the toilet. Their solutions are at once absurd, profound, and probably not the answer to all our problems, so we also rounded up the fully-baked ideas at the forefront of this global sanitation issue.

IDEO's Clean Team


At public toilets in Kumasi, Ghana, locals joke about a “smell so bad you can hear it.” But 80 percent of residents use the facilities anyway because they don’t have a choice—the city simply can’t afford to build more sewers. Portable toilets at home are an option, but they have been just as gross—until now. Design firm IDEO worked with global personal care company Unilever and nonprofit Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor to find a new system that could keep toilets clean. They created a service run by local operators that rents portable toilets and picks up the waste two to three times a week. The operators have a chance to earn a living, and families have a safe, clean place to go to the bathroom without the risk of disease.

Sanergy's Fresh Life Toilets

Residents of Nairobi, Kenya, frequently refer to “flying toilets”—small plastic bags full of waste that people toss into the air because there’s no other place to put them. The main alternative for poor residents has been pit toilets—deep holes in the ground that aren’t connected to sewers, and often overflow because they’re difficult and expensive to empty. Sanergy, a social enterprise founded at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has designed a new network of franchised pay toilets that collect waste in sealed containers, keeping the toilets spotless. Later, the solid waste is separated to make fertilizer for nearby farms. Part of the strategy is rebranding the idea of the public toilet; when a new toilet launches in a community, the company celebrates by throwing a block party with balloons, face painting, and music.

CalTech's Solar-Powered Toilet

Designed by a team of engineers at California Institute of Technology led by Michael Hoffman, and currently in testing stages, this toilet uses solar power to break down waste into fertilizer and hydrogen gas. The gas, stored in fuel cells, provides another source of electricity to keep the system running. The toilet also recovers and sanitizes water, which can be reused to flush the toilet or potentially irrigate crops. Amazingly, all of the materials, apart from the rooftop solar panel, can fit under the floor of an ordinary bathroom. The toilet will go into large-scale tests next year, and one of the first locations might be a refugee camp in Jordan, where thousands currently live without plumbing.

Illustrations by Thomas Porostocky

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