Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2008

Jack Sim

Jack Sim is not afraid to talk about poop. In fact, the Singaporean wants everyone to think about just how much waste they produce. "I ask people, 'How many times do you eat a day?' and everyone knows," says the founder of the World Toilet Organization, a lesser known if still vital WTO. "But no one knows how many times they go to the toilet. It's so basic and so important, but the stigma around toilets makes it difficult to even discuss."

Lack of proper sanitation is one of the developing world's most urgent problems. Some 2.6 billion people have no access to toilets, and groundwater contaminated by fecal matter is a major killer; as many as 2 million people die every year because of waterborne diarrheal diseases, often caused by poor sanitation. But getting rural villagers to realize the importance of toilets is difficult because of the embarrassment factor. Sim, a retired construction and real estate entrepreneur, founded the nonprofit WTO in 2001 to change that mind-set. "It's a question of marketing toilets as a status symbol," he says, noting that plenty of poor people buy cell phones as soon as they've saved enough money. "I want people to aspire to owning a toilet, just like others aspire to own a Louis Vuitton bag."

Sim isn't talking about some fancy Japanese commode that warms your rear or masks unpleasant noises with classical music. He means basic, ecologically sound latrines that can cost as little as $10. But Sim cautions against simply gifting toilets to poor villages, noting that without proper education the equipment often goes unused or the buildings are even converted into makeshift storehouses or slaughterhouses. Instead, through the WTO, which now boasts 133 member organizations from 50 countries, Sim is working to partner toilet makers with fertilizer businesses so that human waste can serve as a natural crop booster. He also touts an emerging technology that transforms sewage into biogas, which can be used as cooking fuel. Both are promising ideas in an age of global warming, and they make good business sense at a time when fertilizer prices have soared. Overall, the World Health Organization estimates that for every dollar invested in sanitation, the return is ninefold.

Sim's lavatorial ambitions aren't limited to helping the unsanitary masses. In 2005, he convinced Singapore's government to build double the number of toilet cubicles for women as for men, since gents can also use urinals. "The current design of public toilets came before women's liberation," he says. "We should give women the toilets they deserve." Now that's the right kind of toilet talk.