Beijing’s Forbidden City was the Chinese empire’s seat of power for 500 years. It was built out of rammed earth and wood in the early 1400s, and its majesty has been largely preserved, even though it’s now the Palace Museum and attracts as many as 130,000 tourists a day. Awkward thing about centuries-old ground, though: The sewage lines have little capacity. And 130,000 people can’t just hold it.
The museum’s previous solution was icky. Toilets there produced a separate plastic baggie of human waste with each so-called flush. But now a beautiful deep red structure is tucked under the site’s foreboding watchtowers, suitably camouflaged to the surroundings. Inside is a row of stalls, each with a stainless steel platform. Every stall has a door that’s synchronized to turn the lights and fan on and off. It looks like a modern row of porta potties, basically, and visitors would be forgiven for not noticing the revolution that brought them relief: Out of view is a holding tank and a computerized system, a combination that may change communities around the world.
Standing nearby, for a visit, is the man who developed it: Henry Wu, CEO and founder of the Landwasher. He’s a ruggedly handsome 44-year-old entrepreneur who spent years in his quest to create an environmentally friendly toilet–a quest that even destroyed his marriage. He has now installed more than 10,000 of his toilets across China and sells almost $7 million worth of them a year, making Landwasher a worldwide leader in environmental sanitation and Wu a millionaire.
Landwasher serves a need that could not be more acute. More than 2.5 billion people around the world do not have access to a flush toilet. Communities without one suffer from poor sanitation, water-supply contamination, and widespread disease. The need is particularly stark in China, where the World Health Organization estimates that 14 million people defecate in the open. Even locales that have access, such as urban China or even the West, experience worsening water shortages that make the 1.6 gallons of agua required for an average flush a profligate extravagance.
The Landwasher toilet solves this problem in straightforward fashion, so let’s just be clear about how: It makes use of number one to flush number two. “Any animal pees before it poops,” Wu says. (Though there are some exceptions.) Because eliminating solid waste takes longer, the toilet’s computer keeps track of how long you spend inside a stall and then draws conclusions about what you’ve been doing in there. Valves separate urine and fecal matter. Urine, which is sterile, is stored in a tank under the toilet, while solid waste is obliterated with what looks like the engine and blade of a garbage disposal. The system then uses the sterile urine to flush. Landwasher toilets use only one-tenth of a gallon of water to staunch any odor–or none at all if a blue surface disinfectant is added. The computers and moving parts can even be powered by solar energy. “Technology has to solve this problem,” he says. “The water shortage is even worse than the power shortage, because we have renewable energy, but it’s hard to turn polluted water into clean water.”
The flushing mechanism may sound gross, but it’s common enough to Wu. During his childhood in rural China in the 1970s, his family would use human waste as fertilizer to farm its land. “Back then, it was much less expensive than fertilizer,” he says. “Whoever went to collect it profited from it.” Wu’s grandmother had that particular chore, and the memory stayed with him. After graduating from Peking University in 1991 with a degree in physics, he ended up working at a securities trading house in Shenzhen. Several years later, the official in charge disappeared abroad with much of the company’s assets. Wu returned to Beijing, visited the Palace Museum one day and, after seeing the sorry state of the facilities, resolved to invent a new kind of toilet.
Almost no one around him shared his enthusiasm. He fiddled with the design by himself for years, with little support. They didn’t see the point, despite Wu’s entreaties about the deteriorating environment. Those years were especially trying on his marriage, he admits, and ultimately led to its dissolution. His father was perhaps the only one who believed in him, and lent him startup money. Within two years, he had the blueprints and patented his facilities; today, Landwashers start at $5,000 and can be found everywhere from parks to construction sites.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is discovering that more than 150 years after the first practical water closet was developed, there’s a pressing need for a better one. Last year, the Gates Foundation said it would hand out $6.5 million in “toilet of the future” grants. A number of companies around the globe compete in the waterless-toilet sector, with a lot of different design concepts, but Landwasher is the only one that uses a human’s own waste to novel effect.
Despite Wu’s success, he is still refining his product. “Now we want to figure out how to turn the waste into powder or pellets, to spread out over land,” he says, harkening back to his grandmother’s old task. Ultimately, he wants to design a system for residential buildings, which currently flush away about a third of their overall water consumption.
But Wu isn’t interested in Gates Foundation grants. He has enough capital to fund his own research and development, including help from New Ventures, the VC arm of the World Resources Institute. He says the foundation’s requirements are far too strict. “We’re trying to make things simpler, not more complicated,” he says. “They are asking people to turn shit into batteries.” He raises his eyebrows to signal his bemusement and drily retorts, “They won’t be the best batteries.”
Photo by Mark Leong