Pros and Cons of sustainable portable toilets in Germany

The following post was written by guest blogger Kevin Kuhn of NonWaterSanitation.de:

In this article, I´d like to talk about one topic which is not very common in the field of sanitation. I am talking about rentals for portable toilets for any kind of events, construction sites, or festivals, but even for parks, beaches, e.t.c. for the long-term.

Why is it worth talking about it?
The sanitary situation on the sector for portable toilets is catastrophic. Sometimes it is worse than the situation in third world countries! At the moment people leave their homes and go to a crowded place, and it is nearly impossible to find proper sanitary installations. Most of the time they have a disgusting odour, they are stuffed with waste and the dirt doesn´t even let you think about sitting on it. If you know one of these plastic toilets, you will definitely recognize your experience with distaste. The worst situation appears on festivals for 2-5 days. During these events, people don´t have any possibility to enjoy a normal toilet. I have heard about people getting communicable diseases and constipation after such a weekend. So let me ask you, is that a situation which we can except in a far developed society like ours?

Following this main problem, there are also the questions of sustainability in sanitation. The supply of cabins made out of plastic, does not seem to be a good solution for solving greater problems like declining resources of oil and climate change. They are very energy- and resource intensive in their production and cleaning processes. Special trucks are needed to collect the waste, to transport these bulky cabins and to clean the toilets via high-pressured water. A last point to be mentioned is that waste-water treatment is really struggling with the waste in those toilets through tampons or other sanitary products. Apart from that, the nutrients of urine and feaces are lost while treated in those facilities. This should let us also think about the externalities of supplying sanitation facilities.

There is a green solution
To solve the problems we are tackling, we have to rethink the production of toilet cabins, the treatment of the waste, and mainly the service around toilets.

Sustainable production of toilets: The current dominating plastic toilets have two advantages: they are light and they are easy to produce in masses. But using local wood instead as the main component makes it easier to disassembly them. The toilets are also light and it is a renewable resource.

The treatment of human waste: The treatment will be done through composting the collected material, in the same way it is done in private gardens or Ecosan projects. Sustainable mobile toilets are composting toilets. This means that there is a barrel under the toilet seat which can easily be removed and exchanged. Also there is no energy and no water used to convert human waste into valuable humus.

Service around toilets: It starts with using grid material to avoid any kind of distaste and odour. To achieve this, chipped wood will be used. This can easily absorb the moisture and is biodegradable. Also there is a need to raise awareness for sanitation, which can be achieved by having an employee who supervises the toilets and promotes sustainable sanitation, or through special offers like Tippy-Taps or music.

Compost toilets at Weltfest in Berlin, Germany, 2013
Compost toilets at Weltfest in Berlin, Germany, 2013

The revolution already started! But just began in central Europe.

If you do a quick Google search, you will find some worldwide festivals which are trying to have a share of 100% from sustainable toilets. Some examples include the BOOM festival in Portugal, Natural Event in Australia, and many smaller suppliers in England and France. Their goal is to make sanitation fascinating. Thus they have colourful toilets, easy-going staff, or even a DJ. There are actually people dancing in front of toilets. Some of the suppliers are taking a pay-per-use fee, some get paid by the organiser. But what they all have in common is the problem of logistics. Because serving toilets and treating faecal matter of 1000s of people needs a master plan. Mostly there are waste containers used, because the wheels lighten the transport. Afterwards it will be collected in larger containers and transported to a local farmer or any other composting site.

That works well for festivals, where mostly young people go to and most of the festivals in Europe try to start building their own composting toilets. But how is the market for one-day events like a street party, a family party, or construction sites so far? For that kind of service there is still no clear answer. This is mainly because organisers don´t know about this alternative. Another reason is the higher price that is still needed; like in any other breakthrough technology, new competitors have financial disadvantages.

In Germany and Switzerland, a few smaller companies were established in the last two years. EcoToi is working in the area of Berlin, nowato in Frankfurt/Main, Goldeimer in Northern Germany and Kompotoi in Switzerland. Thus, they are spatially separated and can´t compete with each other. But every one of the companies has the same problems:

  • costly and laborious production of toilets
  • a small budget and mostly depending on sponsorships
  • a small staff
  • high transportation cost
  • suppliers for conventional portable toilets canoffer lower prices
  • they just have a small stock on toilets (2-8), which is not sufficient for most organisers
  • lack of knowledge about alternative portable toilets

One advantage all the teams have right now is that some social groups are willing to pay a higher price for a green product. Almost every of these firms want to donate their gains to sanitation projects. This kind of corporate sustainable responsibility is well appreciated by the costumers, though the gains are too small until now, to create a noteworthy impact. The fact that these toilets offer more comfort is very important for those users. Also, there is still some uncertainty about the law situation for recycling of human waste. Until now mostly farmers and biogas plants take care of it with their own responsibility. But still the major target for the future will be to be financially independent and to up-scale the business and compete with conventional suppliers.

What do you think about the way to make sustainable portable toilets well-known as a better alternative? Should there be room for this kind of innovation?

If you have any comments, ideas, or concerns, please write me an E-Mail: Kevin.kuhn@nonwatersanitation.de // www.nonwatersanitation.de

The Reptilian Code of Toilets?

I’ve recently read an interesting article on the work of cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille who’s the author of different books, among them the The Culture Code and 7 Secrets of Marketing in a Multi-Cultural World .

One of this theories is that “buying decisions are strongly influenced by the reptilian brain”: only accessible via the subconscious, the reptilian brain is the home of our intrinsic instincts .

“Dr. Rapaille started his work on Archetype Discoveries in 1976 to identify consumers unstated needs and wants. His work is in sharp contrast to the traditional market research, which relies specifically on the permanent underlying structure of what people say through opinion surveys, focus groups or interviews to forecast behaviors. His research at Archetype Discoveries seeks to dig under ones “rational” reasoning, to uncover the true emotional and biological roots of ones opinions and behaviors. He believes that understanding this unconscious foundation gives one the tools to better motivate consumers, design new products, and improve communications strategies.”

According to his website, his list of clients includes General Motors, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Boeing, IBM and AT&T.

Archetype Discoveries
In the course of these Archetype Discoveries, as he calls this process, he helped uncovering the secret code of cities and products, such as Dubai and Singapore.

Clotaire Rapaille also recently received a lot of hatred when he identified the “code” of the City of Québec in Canada as “completely neurotic” and Quebeckers having a “sadomasochist” relationship with “the English”. The inconvenience of such “truth” obviously is the risk you take while uncovering subconscious messages.

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This blog is about sanitation. Sanitation, as in: clean toilets and sound treatment options.

dilapidated flush toilet
Picture: dilapidated flush toilet in Kansuswa, Zambia

In an ideal world, all waste streams would probably be sustainable and could be reused (the biological and technical nutrients would remain in a loop). The Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (of which this blog is a partner) aims to focus on such sustainable approaches.

Most humans, however, don’t seem to care about the treatment options, for them all that matters is the interface between them and the problem (their urine, faeces and other biological waste) because it is what they get in touch with. Such an interface is the toilet – a place where they can safely & comfortably urinate and defecate, with or without privacy.

Flush and Forget
To my understanding, the approach of the sustainable sanitation people has in the past also included the various treatment options (which are best described in the multilingual Compendium of Sanitation in Developing Countries), so the design of new toilets often follows the attached treatment option(s).

After about a hundred years of conventional flush type toilets in the developed world that are based on water for transport, the approach from the treatment side isn’t that wrong as it shifts the sanitation problem from the user side to the environmental engineering side: let someone else take care of it.

This “flush and forget” mentality probably also is what made flush type toilets so popular in the past, for they allowed the convenient discharge of waste within a few seconds.

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Now, I understand that it would probably not be possible to have a single technology, a single toilet and treatment option for all humans out there on this planet, BUT! – and that’s where Clotaire Rapaille comes into play – would it be possible to make use of the Archetype method to identify the optimal toilet design for each culture out there? Not because toilet users in each community wouldn’t know best what they want (or rather: what they are used to), but because such an unconventional approach could probably shed some new light on toilet design – and which type would be best suited for each community (going by their intrinsic needs).

Cancer
Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization in Singapore, already uses a similar approach on one of his toilet hygiene education projects in some SE Asian countries: “dirty toilets cause cancer”, he argues in this video, shot at the Water Cube @ Stockholm World Water Week 2010, “all the people in China who started smoking on the toilet” (because of smelly toilets) “continue to smoke and eventually get lung cancer”.

People smoking on toilets. On toilets! …because they don’t want to smell the remaining faeces of others. Oh my.

While his approach also delivers another argument on why progressive people in developed countries (yeah, the RP of China) should also rethink their investments into a proper toilet, it’s interesting to see the way toilet users chose to avoid the smell problem. Instead of cleaning the toilet, they prefer to smoke. This “hygiene” strategy in my opinion says a lot about the intrinsic instincts of toilet users in those communities. People don’t want to touch or care about other faeces, others than their own (as Jack argues: “you forgive yourself for the smell if you defecate within the first 6 seconds”) and will do anything else to cover it up.

Japan
You’ve probably already heard of or even used one of those sophisticated bidet/washlet toilets in modern Japan that offer so much comfort, including a sound module that covers up any embarassing sounds. I still remember squat toilets in traditional Ryokans while growing up in Japan which were very basic – but which also were very much in line with the traditional & rough Japan back in the days (1970s+80s). Nowadays, with over 13 million inhabitants in the Metropolis that Tokyo has meanwhile become, coupled with this special Japanese understanding of how an individual has to be part of a group, I understand that these modern toilets not only provide a very luxurious hygienic comfort, but also protect its users from any embarassing situation. The success of these toilet systems probably also goes in line with the use of toilet slippers, as there are clean and unclean areas, and may also be related to the ongoing ageing of society in Japan (which calls for automatic solutions). Given that about 72% of all installed toilets in Japanese households are of this bidet type, it seems obvious that toilet users / consumers are willing to invest money into such “luxury”.

Reptilian?
Is this – the luxury of a clean & modern toilet – in any way related to the intrinsic needs of toilet users in Japan? I am asking this question as the “intrinsic instincts”, as Rapaille calls them, are very Freudian in a sense that they are associated with our early childhood memories. Given that Japanese boys are often pampered until they join university, and given that they are the ones who make the buying decision in Japanese families, could this desire for a luxurious toilet be part of their intrinsic instincts?

“Nonsense”, you may reply, “toilets are toilets, everyone needs to use them, Freud is totally overrated and this Rapaille dude from France a wacko”. Yes. And no, not really. Because there could indeed be a “Reptilian Code of Toilets” that still needs to be identified. “The Hot Button”, as Rapaille calls it, the unique code why consumers do something.

Why? Because he’s right on the Indian code as mentioned in the Fast Company article from 2006: “Indians are at root a practical people.”

Open defecation in a society that’s so old, sophisticated but also traditional and with a lot of 2000yrs old working in-the-loop-concepts, it seems more than logic that a lot of (poor) people are still defecating in the open (see documentary from my previous post) – simply because it’s the most practical thing to do. And that, ladies and gentleman, is a culture code.

Is there any Reptílian Code on toilets?