Trash to Treasure: Bill Gates Invests in Wastewater

Video capture via gatesnotes.com.

Video capture via gatesnotes.com.

The world is running out of clean water. Odd, because we were taught in school that the planet, like ourselves, is more than 70% water. But, also like ourselves, the planet’s water is mostly salty.

And much of the freshwater is not where the most people are. Trapped water in deep aquifers and polar ice, surface water in the Great Lakes, Lakes Victoria and Baikal are all examples of massive reserves of fresh water that just are not accessible to most of the world. That leaves us with .007% of the planet’s water for our use.

The planet is making more people every year. But it is not making more water. And there are parts of the world where hygiene and water supplies are in such crisis that 3 children per minute are dying from contamination.

Companies too are feeling the pinch of dwindling sources. “Corporate water footprint” is not a term invented by environmentalists. Major global companies coined it to address the challenge that water scarcity poses to growth. But where there is crisis there is opportunity, according to the website waterfootprint.org:

Risks can turn into an opportunity for those companies that proactively respond to the challenge of global freshwater scarcity. Frontrunners that create product transparency before others do, that formulate specific and measurable targets with respect to water footprint reduction, with special attention to areas where problems of water scarcity and pollution are most critical, and that can demonstrate actual improvements, can turn this into a competitive advantage.

And of course an innovator who can make a silk’s purse out of a sow’s ear — and sell it — stands to benefit most. Enter Janicki Bioenergy, the developer of the OmniProcessor, which transforms human waste into drinking water, and produces its own energy to do it. The OmniProcessor is not the first technology to perform this sophisticated decontamination trick. But Bill Gates was impressed enough to fund its development through his foundation. He reports on his blog:

I watched the piles of feces go up the conveyer belt and drop into a large bin. They made their way through the machine, getting boiled and treated. A few minutes later I took a long taste of the end result: a glass of delicious drinking water.

[…]

The water tasted as good as any I’ve had out of a bottle. And having studied the engineering behind it, I would happily drink it every day. It’s that safe.

[…]

Why would anyone want to turn waste into drinking water and electricity?

Because a shocking number of people, at least 2 billion, use latrines that aren’t properly drained. Others simply defecate out in the open. The waste contaminates drinking water for millions of people, with horrific consequences: Diseases caused by poor sanitation kill some 700,000 children every year, and they prevent many more from fully developing mentally and physically.

Smart businesses too are tuned into the global water crisis and are watching for the innovations that will alleviate one of there biggest fears, stagnant growth caused by polluted or scarce water. Gates sees the connection:

The processor wouldn’t just keep human waste out of the drinking water; it would turn waste into a commodity with real value in the marketplace. It’s the ultimate example of that old expression: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

To check out Forbes magazine for its spin on Gates and Janicki, follow this link.

Read Bill Gates’ take on his blog, gatesnotes.com