Words: Florence Robson
When was the last time you really thought about the functionality of a toilet? According to the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund, 60% of the global population does not have access to safely managed sanitation, meaning that untreated waste from 4.3 billion people enters our environment every day. It’s a problem that Virginia Gardiner and her team are looking to solve; from popping up at festivals to processing waste in Madagascar to signing a new deal with the City of Manila, the Loowatt toilet is taking over the world.
We caught up with Virginia to learn more about why she moved from journalism to launch her own company, how she measures her impact and how it felt to have a Loowatt toilet displayed at the V&A Museum.
You started out as a journalist. What sparked your toilet fascination?
I worked for a cool publication that focused on design and architecture, based in California, but after a while I got bored about writing about architecture and design and I wanted to actually do it. My background had always straddled engineering and the humanities, so I decided to do a master’s at the Royal College of Art in Industrial Design Engineering, a joint programme between the RCA and Imperial.
My degree project was inspired by an article I had written about toilets after I had gone to a kitchen and bath industry show in Orlando as a young journalist. I had been disgusted because it felt like such an environment of consumption and waste, and when I came back my boss recommended a book called The Bathroom, The Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste by Ellen Lupton. The book psychoanalysed American culture on the basis of the bathroom and kitchen, pointing to these rooms’ functional and aesthetic roles in our cultural obsession with “consumption and expulsion” . I decided to do a toilet project for my degree because it seemed like a great opportunity to address these issues.
How did you approach the initial development of the Loowatt toilet?
When I started researching it, I realised that toilet systems really should generate value from waste because there are a lot of valuable nutrients and energy in human waste. And it was crucial that a toilet should be waterless because it’s crazy to flush a toilet with drinking water. Last but definitely not least, I thought that if people are going to use a new toilet it has to be an experience that they’ll value and enjoy using. So, that became the brief for the original idea of the Loowatt toilet! I made a prototype that was displayed at the Royal College of Art degree show back in 2008 and then a few years later I set up the company.
How does the Loowatt toilet work?
The Loowatt toilet has a waterless flush – you get an experience like a flushed toilet without the need for water. That water is replaced by polymer film refill, which is an extremely efficient use of material – only about two percent of the waste stream that goes from our toilets to treatment polymer film. The film feeds through the toilet and when you flush it pulls the waste down through the toilet into a container below. We work with compostable material, so at the treatment end we’ve developed a system where the polymer film is separated from the waste so all the organic feedstock can go straight to anaerobic digestion and the film sent for industrial composting. We’ve increasingly been looking at recyclable solutions for the film as well.
How did you move from the prototype to making something that’s actually commercially viable and has a genuine social impact?
It’s taken a long time. We spent a lot of time developing the technology when we were incubated at the RCA and Imperial. It’s a whole value chain solution for sanitation so it’s a toilet and a treatment solution. We developed the technology and proved it through our own operations: An operating company in Madagascar serving household toilets and processing waste, and an operating company in the UK providing toilets for events and festivals. In the last year or so we’ve switched from B2C to selling B2B to service providers, which was always a goal in terms of having a more scalable business model.
How do you measure your impact?
For us the crucial success factors are customer, user and servicer satisfaction. For sanitation to change around the world we need solutions that are genuinely liked by people.
Another metric is waste that is removed, tracked and treated. For example, our systems in the UK and overseas use IT systems to track waste from toilets to treatment, and in the UK we’ve been working with Thames Water since 2017 to quantify our waste’s value as feedstock in their anaerobic digester treatment systems (compared to diluted or chemically dosed waste).. If you can track how much waste has come out of toilets and been treated in value-generating systems, then that creates not only an environmental metric but also a human health one.
Can you tell us more about the deal you’ve just signed with the city of Manila?
Yes! We’re providing them with hardware. They’re scaling up
How did Loowatt end up on display at the V&A?
We were part of the food exhibit last summer; they wanted to include the ‘back end’ of the food system so our toilet was chosen to represent the modern toilet. It was sat alongside an exhibit about the Victorian sewer. In hindsight, perhaps using water to move waste through a city doesn’t work best for the planet today but it was still an amazing achievement at the time. To have our toilet alongside that, representing the 21st century, was an amazing moment for us.
What are your ambitions for Loowatt?
We see the potential to become a leading international provider of non-sewered sanitation. Urban civilisation around the world is rapidly increasing, as is the number of people living in informal settlements. We think that there are a lot of municipalities in emerging markets that want to adapt and adopt new systems for managing human waste, and we want to become a provider of hardware who can help them to do that.
It’s a very exciting stage for us now – having our first partnership with a municipality, working alongside utility partners and the city. Actually, it feels like an exciting time for non-sewered sanitation as a whole! We can complete the sanitation value chain in a more environmentally sustainable way that’s also going to enable us to service many people in the city who currently don’t have access to safe sanitation. That’s particularly important now: COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of human health and sanitation plays a really vital role in that.