We Instagram our food and gossip about our sex lives, but the biological need to “use the restroom” is cloaked in silence and euphemism. As humans, we have never quite adjusted to the fact that several times a day we produce waste (though it doesn’t have to be wasted) that smells bad and is hard to deal with. In developed countries we have distanced ourselves from our least pleasant bodily function, in some cases with a complex, expensive and highly wasteful sewerage system. In the developing world, this is not an option and millions of people die each year as a result of inadequate sanitation.
There ought to be a way for humans to relieve themselves safely, cleanly and sustainably, but the international community has yet to deliver it. Toilets vary dramatically from country to country, often showcasing the idiosyncrasies of those who use them. Here is OZY’s tour of the world in six toilets.
1. Japan: The Robo-Toilet
Percent of Japanese households that have a version of the Toto Washlet
Price of Japan’s foremost toilet, the Neorest 700H
Japan unquestionably rules the toilet world. It’s the home place of Toto, the Apple of toilet manufacturing. Their most advanced Washlet models have warmed seats, wash and blow-dry the user’s bottom and “front parts,” check blood pressure, play music and repel dirt. The Japanese restroom revolution isn’t limited to one company, though, and Toto has many competitors with new models constantly being developed.
Although these futuristic thrones are probably environmentally unsustainable, they are the most hygienic toilets on earth. What’s really astonishing is that 60 years ago, the Japanese predominantly used pit latrines. The scale of the behavioral adjustment is a valuable case study for public health and sanitation specialists.
2. United States: The Flush Toilet
Water used per day by the average U.S. family
Percent of that water is used by toilets
Percent of U.S. municipal energy budgets used for wastewater treatment
As far as most Americans are concerned, we have reached the end of toilet history. The flush toilet transformed Western societies, and now we expect our waste to be quietly whisked away so we don’t have to see, smell or talk about it. The Western reluctance to discuss the WC may seem like harmless puritanism, but huge amounts of water and power are consumed by the flush system. It would be impossible to recreate Western sanitation across the developing world. What’s more, in an age of finite resources and rising emissions, the flusher isn’t viable in the developed world either. The toilet has hardly changed in decades, so maybe this is an area ripe for disruption.
3. Sweden: Ecological Sanitation Toilets
Percent of water use saved by using urine separation toilets
Percent of agricultural phosphorus used in Sweden that will be derived from wastewater by 2015
Wastewater has historically been a dangerous vehicle for disease, but since the 1980s the Swedes have sought to treat and re-use it for agricultural, commercial and domestic purposes, including human consumption. Ahead of the pack, as usual, Sweden has been investigating and implementing sustainable ecological sanitation. This involves the installation of urine separation toilets, a model that has been adopted around the world, including Germany, China, Zimbabwe and India. Unsurprisingly, there are vast psychological barriers to implementing such systems in the pee-paranoid West, but we may not have that much choice.
4. India: Composting Toilets
Homes in India use Sulabh compost toilets
People use Sulabh compost toilets per day
Mohandas Gandhi believed that sanitation was more important than independence for India. In a country where members of the lowest caste were considered “untouchable” because they handled other people’s excrement, a responsible attitude to one’s own waste was essential to Gandhi’s vision of a more equal society. Building on Gandhian principles, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak founded Sulabh in 1970. This rights-based waste-management provider has become the largest nonprofit organization in India, employing more than 50,000 people. Pathak developed an ecologically advanced composting latrine, which today costs only $10. The latrine is built over two pits and requires only a cupful of water to flush. The initial pit will fill in two to four years, at which point the other pit is used and the waste in the first is left to compost. Composting, which effectively meets both waste management and agricultural needs, is growing in popularity around the world.
5. Haiti: The Toilet Bag
People had no access to clean water or toilet facilities after the Haitian earthquake
PeePoo bags are produced and distributed in Kenyan slums every day
Before the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010, it was already the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Its underdevelopment was apparent in its lack of sanitation — 28 percent of its residents had no access to toilet facilities and defecated in the open or into plastic bags. Things got even worse after the earthquake. Peepoople, a Swedish nonprofit, responded by distributing single-use, biodegradable toilet bags in Port-au-Prince. The bags are lined with urea crystals, which cause waste to compost within weeks. They have also been used in the urban slums of Kenya, Bangladesh and in other emergency situations. PeePoople aims to introduce them to other parts of the developing world, although their success will depend on dramatic behavioral change. In developed countries, bag toilets are sometimes used by campers or for pet waste.
6. Nigeria: No Toilets
Nigerians do not have access to safe sanitation
Children die every year due to inadequate sanitation
Return for every dollar spent on improving sanitation in the developing world
In Nigeria, 112 million people do not have access to clean, safe toilet facilities. Forty-five million of those are forced to defecate in the open, like 2.5 billion others around the world. More children a year die as a result of poor sanitation — from diarrhea, typhoid and cholera — than from HIV, malaria and TB combined. A third of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa skip school when they have their periods or drop out altogether because of poor sanitation. However, of all the Millennium Development Goals, the least progress has been made towards the sanitation targets. The evolution of toilets and waste facilities in other regions highlights that progress is possible, and that changing toilets changes lives.