Beyond the Toilet

Today is a big day! The UN has officially recognized November 19 as World Toilet Day, hopefully breaking taboos, unlocking important conversations on sanitation, and catalyzing action. The numbers on sanitation remain dire: by official estimates, 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, and diarrheal disease kills more children each year than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Getting people to talk about toilets is a tremendous step in the right direction, and now it’s time to take the next one.

In our field we’re often reminded that there are more people in the world with cell phones than with toilets, which may be one of the reasons Bill Gates wants to create the cell phone of sanitation. It’s critical to unpack these sound bytes, so we can actually learn to make toilets as (more!) widespread as phones. Here are a few lessons from cell phones that will help us move beyond the toilet.

Courtesy of the Water and Sanitation Program

Courtesy of the Water and Sanitation Program

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We’re Sharing our Encyclopoodia

Yes, we meant to spell it that way. During our design process, we pulled together images and information on dozens of toilets to get inspiration on ergonomics, aesthetics, function, environment, technology, all the details that go into a toilet that you might otherwise never notice. Then, we decided this document could be useful, inspiring, or enjoyable for others too, so we’re sharing it. Click the thumbnail below, or download it here. We hope you enjoy it!


*Short Disclaimer*- the information in this document was garnered from publicly available material on the internet. All efforts were made to give proper attribution and ensure accuracy, and we apologize for any errors and omissions.

Finally- for all of you who flip through the Encyclopoodia and find yourselves hungering for even more design inspiration (who wouldn’t?), we have been amazed at what you can find by searching Pinterest for Toilets. It’s an industrial designer’s playground.

Project Update (a teaser)

We’ve been analyzing our results and refining our toilet design, with great feedback from our friends at SOIL and at x-runner. Until we post some more pictures of toilets, here’s Kory giving a teaser of some of the results of our impact study in Haiti, along with interesting updates from cool projects by  Project Sammaan and  Water for People. While we encourage you to check out all the presentations, Kory starts at 56:50. Enjoy, and come back soon for pictures of a flat-packable toilet prototype!

Following Up

The work doesn’t end when you install the toilets. That’s when it begins.

Since deploying our toilets in November, we’ve been working closely with our friends at SOIL to refine the collection service, to make it faster, more convenient, and more enjoyable for our customers and our staff alike. We’ve put a lot of work into building our next generation of re.source tracking tools, too.

We think that the household toilet team has done a fantastic job in the past few months at delivering effective sanitation to our customers in Shada, but it doesn’t actually matter what we think. What matters is what our customers and their neighbors think, and what kind of impact we are delivering for them.

For the next few weeks, we will be going beyond our routine check-ups to re-examine everything we have done, interviewing customers and residents and staff, poring over operations data, and looking at our books to understand how we are doing.


SOIL’s Erinold, Josiane from KOSS in Shada, and re.source Operations Manager Rachel Sklar regroup and compare notes during a check-up of the household toilets

The goal is to get an early sense of what seems to be working, and what could be improved. We’ll make changes, and then we’ll learn from those too. It is through this continuous follow-up that we hope to build and improve our model into one that constantly improves sanitation for millions of people around the world.

Bringing the Toilets Home

We’re launching! We installed 25 toilets in Shada on October 30th, reaching a milestone we’ve been working toward for more than a year. It marks the culmination of many hours of design, prototyping, community meetings, surveying, training, waste collecting, and business model analysis. And it’s just a start. By the end of the month, we expect to install many more toilets for our 3-month pilot to stress-test our service, logistics, and pricing model before scaling up. Continue reading

Tracking the re.source

We spend most of our time writing about toilets and sanitation services, but that’s certainly not all we think about. We think about a lot of the things that many other businesses think about: what’s our inventory? How many resources are we consuming? How much material are we producing, where, and when? Never mind that we work with poop and compost, we deal with the same questions as anyone else who manages a supply chain. We care about our supply chain because it has a huge impact on our costs, and once we reach large scale, the supply chain can get pretty complex. We’re prototyping management systems now to know what will grow with us.

We design our tracking systems the way we design everything- starting from the users, in this case SOIL‘s staff. We went on many 4AM drum runs (we’ll share those with you soon) and sat down countless times with the team to make a system that fits seamlessly into waste collection operations. We’ve hit upon a system that has a lot of potential.

Watching and Learning




With just a few low-end Android phones and Open Data Kit (ODK), we have a system that can track everything that goes on in a poop operation. Checking the temperature of the compost bins? Put it in the phone. Weighing bagasse for delivery to the toilets? All the information goes into the phones. We bring the phones back into the office, download the data, and presto: everything’s ready for analysis. The benefits of this system over paper forms are manifold: no need for repeated data entry, less potential for errors and omitted data, faster data availability…

And the kicker: SOIL’s staff members love this system. The drum run team and the compost team mastered the forms in a few quick minutes, and you can tell they enjoy the prestige they get when using the phones in Shada. To boot, we’re sure it’s good advertising for our service that we’re using sleek, modern equipment.

Moïse rocking the phone while returning drums to a public toilet

The data we collect will give us a better understanding of how fast our customers are filling their waste containers, how efficient we are, and where we can cut costs. For now, waste collection frequency is a huge cost driver, and we’ll use our data to optimize collection routes and hopefully even predict future collection needs.

We think our phones are just the first step in creating a smart, highly efficient, and modern sanitation network. We’re building a database to integrate the information (want to help design and implement it? Contact us!), and dreaming up the features we would love to have. What if our toilets warned us two days before they were about to be full? What can we learn from RFID tags being used in municipal solid waste collection? What about from Patrick Thomson and his team’s experiments with water pumps in Kenya? Feel free to let us know your ideas!

In a service where timely collection is critical but costs are driven by the frequency of collection, it pays to get the timing right. And that’s just the beginning.  The better we get at tracking our system, the cheaper we can offer our service. The cheaper our service is, the more people will be using snazzy, clean toilets.

The Expert Toilet Panel

Even as we’re looking to start piloting our collection service with one of our existing designs, we’re always working to design a better toilet.  To that end, Sebastien loaded a few models, prototypes, and concepts into the truck with SOIL’s Erinold Frederic, and went to consult with the experts: our household toilet users in Shada.

You wouldn’t think there could be much variety in toilet designs, but the range of nuances and features to be tackled is tremendous.  So we test out different models (the front-loader, the top-loader, the shorty, the flusher…), and see how our users react.  Really, we don’t believe there’s such a thing as THE toilet design.  Every toilet back home is a little different, why should they all be the same in Haiti?  What matters is to create a line of toilets and features all compatible with an effective, hygienic waste removal mechanism.

We look to our users for their opinion, and they don’t hold back.

Smell is a big deal, and urine stinks. Our users had very strong opinions on where it goes, and how we deal with it.

Speaking of which, can men pee into a urine-diverting toilet while standing? Bad idea, we’re told.

But the height is just about right. A little footstand in the front that doubles as a box for cleaning supplies would be neat too.

The design workshop went well, and we had no trouble recruiting families to try out a new concept or two.  Now it’s time for some more long-term evaluation.