Photo: Loowatt

Our ability to walk into another room, poop in private, and flush the mess away is an incredible luxury that we take for granted. According to the World Health Organization, there are 2.4 billion people who don’t have access to toilets or covered latrines, and without those basic sanitation systems, drinking water is easily contaminated and diseases more readily spread. But transplanting plumbing as we know it into developing countries isn’t always possible. It’s expensive and requires hugely wasteful amounts of water that some communities don’t have, a problem that’s only going to get worse as populations keep increasing and climate change takes its toll. Universities and companies the world over are looking to reinvent waste management and help improve the lives of those billions without proper sanitation, and in a wonderful report for Mosaic that’s lengthy enough to last you at least a bathroom break or two, Lina Zeldovich profiled one startup that is already making a difference.

The story is a fascinating, all-encompassing look at waste management and its history, going all the way back to how the earliest humans handled it. But Zeldovich’s big focus is the costly, complicated process we currently use to make our poop safe, and how it might need to change in the future. She profiles a London-based company called Loowatt that has invented a waterless toilet solution and has it up and running in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. Instead of water flushing your crap away, the Loowatt seals it inside a biodegradable film. Waste collects underneath the toilet, and once a week—or sooner, if need be—a Loowatt crew comes by to empty it out. That waste can then be deposited in something the company calls a “digester,” where micro-organisms eat away at it and produce naturally occurring biogas that can be used for cooking and electricity.

As Zeldovich says, Loowatt toilets probably aren’t going to replace the way we do our business any time soon, but they’re having a demonstrable impact on the people of Antananarivo, and they’re just one of the many methods engineers across the globe are pursuing as they attempt to reinvent the porcelain throne for the reality of 21st-century living.