Let’s Talk Feces!

Happy World Toilet Day!

That’s right, there is such a thing as World Toilet Day. You may be thinking, “why do we need to celebrate a ceramic bowl that contains our feces and other bodily waste?” Well, I answer your question with another question, “If you didn’t have a toilet, where would all that waste go?” That’s right, things start looking a little…stinky don’t they? Well, today is the day to appreciate the things we take for granted in life, especially the things we sit on. World Toilet Day was formed to helped spread awareness of global sanitation issues. I could go start reciting a bunch of astonishing statistics regarding sanitation issues in developing countries, but instead, I’ll just link to the Toilet Day website  (they certainly have a plethora of waste-related puns which I promise to try my best to avoid). But I’ll post the few that were posted on my Twitter:

  • More people have a mobile phone than a toilet
  • Diarrhea is the 2nd leading cause of death for kids under 5.
  • The world’s untreated poop would fill the Superdome in just three days.

These facts are really quite surprising (here’s another one, ever wonder why people in countries that don’t have toilet paper never touch things they eat with their left hand? Yeah…now you know), and makes one realize just how lucky we are in a society that regards toilets and public/private restrooms (or washrooms, or bathrooms) as commonplace. It’s an issue no one wants to talk about due to it’s unappealing nature, but really, it’s one of the most important things to appreciate and spread around the world. Many germs and bacteria thrive in feces and improper sanitation can be quite the health hazard. In fact, no invention has saved more lives than the toilet…think about that. In a way, toilets ensure proper sanitation and give us dignity.

If you want to learn even more about just how lucky we are, there are quite a few humanitarian aid organizations with articles and facts about toilets and sanitation in the third world. An interesting story on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website is about the Latrine Emptying Industry in the third world and it’s dangers. From there you can click on other related links and then you’ll be open to the wonders of the toilet and other humanitarian issues. Females in particularly are greatly affected by the lack of proper sanitation and toilets, but all are affected health-wise. Also, there’s a nice history of toilets here.

But since I’ve never actually experienced a permanent outhouse, chamber pot, or empty pit, I can’t really describe in detail how lucky it is to have a toilet, but now that I’m living in a university dorm, I’ve realized just how much of a luxury a private bathroom is. So now, I’m gonna talk about bathrooms in the “Western Countries” (for lack of a better term, I don’t want to say developed, or minority world, or first world…oh, political correctness), mainly public bathrooms, cause it’s the area that we all share in common, but hate to acknowledge. Public bathrooms in buildings are usually the most dreary and depressing part of the building in terms of design and aesthetics. Most bathrooms have the same layout and painted with generic colors and tiled with generic patterns. Any buildings that actually feature bathrooms that appear to have at least some semblance of thought in aesthetics are usually regarded as high-class, luxurious, or a waste of money.  But it’s these restrooms – with chrome-plated faucet fixtures, sparkling alabaster urinals and toilets, glistening tiles, intricately framed mirrors and air fresheners – that attract people to use them, and spend that extra few seconds to actually wash their hands properly with soap. Now, I’m not saying that all buildings need to spend a fortune decorating their restrooms to the point that people are actually eating there (no one should ever eat in a bathroom), but I’m just saying that if restrooms are the place where we promote cleanliness and sanitation, we should reflect those values within the room. A clean restroom promotes clean people, so while they shouldn’t be the centerpiece of a building plan, the design of restrooms should be given a little more thought.

Overkill? Probably, but it's better than the alternative, no one wants to see a nasty restroom

Standard restrooms often contain a few toilet stalls, a line of sinks with a mirrored wall and two or three paper towel/air drying stations. Male restrooms also have a few urinals as well. These are the bare necessities of a restroom, but these designs have wasted potential with an inefficient use of space, energy and water due to societal taboos and habits. Flushing devices use a disproportional amount of water to flush human waste, especially urine. Companies have responded by developing water-free urinals and hopefully that will catch on. However, while the automatic flush feature of the toilet and urinal were designed so that people would not need to actually pull levers (I don’t know who was the genius who thought that it was a good idea to have people touch something right after relieving themselves, talk about major germ haven), the sensors are pretty dumb in that they either flush when someone isn’t done or just walks by, or they are timed to simply flush on time intervals, even if no one has used them. Smarter toilet technologies would significantly lower water usage. Automatic water faucets is also a good idea to prevent germ-crazy handles, but it’s important that (automatic) soap dispensers be located in close proximity to EACH sink, not just the ends to encourage use of soap. Manual paper towel dispensers also encountered the same problem as manual flushing devices, so many new building have switched to automatic, which is a great idea, and some buildings now use air dryers. But anyone who has used an air dryer knows they are ridiculously loud (I would know, my dorm room is right across from the bathroom, it is not fun to try to sleep when that thing is on…it literally says “feel the power,” it should say “hear the power”), and I don’t know, I just feel like they dry hands a lot slower than direct contact with paper towels. And before you start criticizing me for cutting down trees to fuel my paper towel preference, think about this. Heated air requires energy to power, and often, the air isn’t used in the most efficient manner, while paper towels require no energy to use (just produce) and if properly disposed, they can be recycled.

Now comes a male-only issue, that many guys know about, the unspoken rule. As part of the “Man Laws” (number 6. NOTE: I am in no way endorsing the ”laws” that appear in the link, I’m simply using it as reference), “Every man shall allow one empty urinal of separation in a bathroom with three or more urinals; law is void if there are dividers in between each urinal.” I don’t know how many females are aware of this rule, but it’s pretty prevalent in male society. It’s simply awkward to be in a large room of urinals and be doing your business when a guy comes in and out of all the urinals decides to take the one right next to you. It’s just two of you, awkwardly urinating in an empty room, inches apart. But when the restroom is crowded and every other urinal is already taken, one is struck with the decision: should I take an in-between one, or now awkwardly wait for an opening when there clearly are openings. Some guys simply just go for the open in-between spot, and people won’t care, but there undoubtedly will be people who would rather wait. It amazes me that restroom designers (if there is such a thing) haven’t caught on yet, especially regarding restrooms in schools. It may be more efficient to cram more urinals on a wall, but if they aren’t being used, it’s just a waste of money. So there are two solutions I see: 1) simply put more space between successive urinals, but the spaces have to noticeably large enough or 2) as the Rule Number 6 states, the exception is when there are dividers present, so just place some dividers, everyone will be happier.

Next – the problem of non-building located restrooms. These usually are located in shelters of some sort in parks or beaches, or any sort of public recreational area. These are the dreaded restrooms, the places we see in our nightmares when we talk about feces and bodily wastes, and I don’t blame anyone for having second thoughts about using restrooms after seeing one of these areas. These restrooms are usually constructed of cement and wood and resemble shacks or wooden outhouses. They get the worst rap because of a combination of factors, mainly that these restrooms get wet easily – either due to close proximity to water or some other factor – and with moisture comes the musky smell as well as overall slimy feeling on the floors, walls, and air, especially when the moisture condenses inside. Also, these restrooms are rarely cleaned because they are pretty far away from the main any public building and thus, any malfunctions and messes stay that way for awhile and the stink can be pretty horrible. Outdoor public restrooms also attract all kinds of little creatures: insects, spiders, and maybe even squirrels and snakes, it’s not a pretty sight, in fact, it can get pretty nasty. In these cases, restrooms aren’t areas of cleanliness and sanitation, they are actually the opposite, breeding grounds for disease. I definitely think that these restrooms need to have the most improvements in cities. I understand that some areas don’t have proper infrastructure to allow for flushed toilets and the like, but I’m sure someone can think of a unique, flush-less system that can properly dispose of bodily waste. It would not only benefit these areas, but developing world areas as well (and I hate that term as well). It’s an interesting design challenge: build an outhouse or outdoor public restroom that encourages people to use it, not scare people away. I just think it’s an issue that should be tackled. Skylights can help with passive lighting in the day (and help dry the moisture), any vents or screens to the outside should consider using smaller holes to prevent flies from entering and doors should shut quickly. Consider using a different color scheme from the depressing greys of cement. Allocate more space to the restrooms to prevent claustrophobia. Have some sort of airflow going through the room to prevent stagnant air. Get people to clean it more often. I don’t know, I’m not an interior designer, but I’m sure someone will come up with something.

World Toilet Day is a day for the general public to stop and consider all the benefits they are enjoying with a working toilet and understand the suffering that comes with lack of proper sanitation. Toilets and waste facilities shouldn’t be just an afterthought today, it should be placed front and center, for all to see (although no one would probably want to use it then).  The matter shouldn’t be left unspoken, the issue is still very prevalent. It’s only because we choose to ignore the problem does it become disgusting. The next time you flush the toilet, just think about how good it feels never to see that waste again, and sleep soundly knowing that none of it remains on your hands when eating and that it’s not going directly into your water supply.  Be glad you have a toilet and spread the word about it’s importance, many people still don’t have this basic human right.

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