The Toilet Habits of the Modern World.
We were on a crammed on a public bus that ferries weary passengers from the dilapidated Don Mueng Airport to the Bangkok Train Station, sandwiched beside a school girl and a panting business man sweltering in his suit. Here, Alexandre told me in hushed tones how he had to go to the bathroom in Peking International Airport, after his 14 hour Montreal to Beijing flight. He was inside the clean washroom, and saw rows of empty cubicles. Delighted, he picked one, but saw that it wasn’t “normal-looking.” No matter, he just picked another one, and another one, until he gasped at the realization.
They’re all squat toilets.
Alexandre was not a man who falters so he just took off his pants, resigned his fate. I guffawed as the business man next to me politely smiled even if I was 100% sure he had no idea what was so funny.
It was like the elevator scene from The Shining, but instead of an insane amount of blood, it would just be a lone, porcelain squat toilet. And for many people, it’ll be just as scary.
Like Alexandre, I hated the squat toilet. I was backpacking in China when in a moment of frustration I complained to my new-found friend why everything; the freezing showers, the mystery meat dishes, the hard beds, and of course, the squat toilet, were so peculiar. She simply said, those are better for your health. I realized then, that I behaved in a disrespectful manner. The toilet habits that were inoculated to me as a child by my parents, is only superior when viewed by my society and culture alone. Growing up in the steaming scullery of the world that is the South East Asian tropics, I did my business on a sit down “Western-style toilet,” employed a bidet spray and dried myself with toilet paper. To me, and most others in that region, to do anything else is completely barbaric.
It was in 1596, when an English nobleman by the name of Sir John Harrington published a whimsical paper on his invention, the flushing toilet. (Ellis, 1) After a long while, a man named Joseph Gayetty, invented what would be the modern toilet paper in 1857. Innovation in the sanitation industry at the time was slow, attributed mostly to the fact that poop- no matter how vital it is to our existence, isn’t a favorite subject in polite society. Today, we take these matters seriously, in the much respected UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is stated in Article 25 that,
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”
However, expecting the whole world to adopt the Euro-centric practice of proper sanitation is nothing more than a pipe dream, because to provide indoor plumbing for the whole world is simply too expensive. An inconclusive study by the BMC Public Health says that “pit latrines are in use by more than half the urban population in Sub-Saharan Africa and especially among low income earners. An additional 36 million people in urban areas of Sub-Saharan Africa have adopted the pit.” To contextualize this with an actual user’s perspective I asked Reiza Dejito, of Handicap International France, an NGO worker who moves around the areas of Central and Eastern Africa, and now is currently based in Djouba, South Sudan. She says, “in urban areas, Kenyans adopted the use of flush toilets and toilet papers– these comforts however are reserved for the middle class. Lower class folks use pit latrines, and rural dwellers often have communal latrines, while pastoral communities still practice open defecation.” I fished Reiza for details and asked whether she finds the latrine system better. She says, it is not any better at all, she had to squat, and it needed getting used to. It can get smelly after a while, because the poo goes direct into the tank. Reiza has the heart of a leopard, and the tenacity of a tiger, if not she wouldn’t be in Africa. Nonetheless, she is a city girl at heart and her candid answer came from a person who grew up with a middle- class family who has the luxury of a traditional porcelain toilet. For her to transition from a flushing commode to using a pit latrine would be a downgrade, for sure.
In a complete reversal of Reiza’s situation, I interviewed another friend, Selvakumar Thiruthaniyanathan. He has lived in Montreal for 6 years, after emigrating from his bucolic town of Jaffna, in Sri Lanka. Selva finds that his country’s sanitation habits to be much better. He says, “toilets must be built 10 metres away from the house, with a well ventilated cement grill on four sides of the wall. The septic tank should be 5 metres deep below ground and only the bottom part can contact the land. ” This rigorous set of rules are mandated by the government, and these outdoor toilets are prevalent in his culture- he says only the big city hotels, would have a “Western-style toilet.” Selva maintains that he finds it unhygienic to have toilets inside the house, he also says, despite the fact that Sri Lanka was a former British colony, they don’t use commodes, rather a squat toilet. He quotes the popular adage that many people in China and the Middle East have repeated, that squat toilets reduces the risk of colon cancer. Disputing this is a scientific study that could not find a correlation between colo-rectal cancer and using a sit down toilet, even if they agree that squat toilets provide more rectal comfort and it empties the bowel in a much more efficient manner. However, if one were to ask Alexandre and the countless other farangs who come to the Orient, they wouldn’t dare strain their hamstrings and risk a messy accident with a squat toilet.
Well-off travelers from developed countries can afford to make a choice between their preferred style of sanitation. Ron Cruz, from the wealthy nation of Singapore, is spoiled by the immaculately maintained public toilets, which he claims would smell like lychees and jello, with features such as antiseptic dispensers. A far cry from squatting behind a bush and wiping with champoor leaves on his recent trip to Kenya, where he stayed with the Maasai tribe. For the people who were born with a dirty, rusty spoon in the developing world, toilet training is a matter of life and death. The World Health Organization says that in 2003, a staggering 1.6 million people lost their lives due to unsafe water and sanitation. 90% of them, are children under the age of five.
The dichotomy of the poorest of the poor in Africa and parts of South Asia, and the deep coffers of wealthy Western Europe and North America is broken in the middle by the emerging economies of developing nations like the countries within South East Asia, Central America and South America. Most often all that these countries have to offer is their natural resources- often lumber. A concrete example is in the article, Not a square to spare where it claims that “in 2012 the pulp industry will be expanding production by over 25 million tons, fed by monoculture plantations established in Australia, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, and Uruguay, primarily to feed the market demand for virgin toilet paper in North America and Europe.” The data in this paper concludes that 27,000 trees end up in sewers and landfills worldwide, every single day.
I interviewed Geoffrey Pearce, the current department head of the Geography department at Dawson College about his stance on toilet paper. He says, that toilet paper is essentially a clean paper product. To produce it, trees are cut. A tree does a lot more things than be toilet paper. It provides oxygen for us to breathe, and it is an integral part of our ecosystem. A tree basically, allows us to live. Professor Pearce, in a word said that toilet paper is not environmentally friendly. We discussed the Jean R. Marcotte Station D’epuration, the much talked about water sanitation plant that is currently receiving a lot of flak for its nonchalance in adopting a more rigorous sanitation process, called oxidation. He explained that using the current process in Montreal now, “the treatment plant produces “cakes”, or big piles of poop. These are solid waste that are burnt or separated rather than turned into fertilizers/compost or biogas.”
Since that interview I have tried to get the opinion of the people at Jean R. Marcotte, a current work in progress. From the little information I can gleam with phone calls and an impromptu visit, they cannot shut down the facility not even for a minute. Security is strict through the kilometer perimeter at Pointe-aux-Trembles. The treatment plant is such a necessary part of life, but it is one that most people do not think about until it breaks down.
I learned by research that there is no perfect sanitation system in the world. We are humans and any action we do creates consequences, unintended or not. But if any can come close to the ideal, I think it can be found in Japan. Ada is one of the 13 million inhabitants of Tokyo, the largest city in the world. The cultures and values in Japan is different, she says, people pay particular attention to cleanliness. People respect their sanitary officers and kids are trained at a young age to keep their surroundings tidy and neat. Visitors to Japan would be impressed with the country’s particular attention to detail in everything, especially with their public washrooms. I remember being befuddled in Busan, South Korea, as I stayed in a beautiful loft apartment owned by a Japanese man using the popular website AirBnB. He had the Toto washlet installed in all the bathrooms, it looked like it had more computing powers than my pithy little Samsung phone.
Geoffrey Pearce, finds the bidet system better for the environment. It reduces water and energy consumption. He suggests that “if one is concerned about increased water consumption with bidet usage, consider switching to a lower flush toilet.” Some malls and schools around the world also proudly advertise that their toilet systems use greywater- recycled from the sink to flush their toilets. Although, in reference to the figure above, if the whole world were to abandon the toilet paper system. We will save 27,000 trees daily. But to get people to radically change their habits require a massive cataclysmic event.
In my interviews, I tried my best to get the opinions of people all around the world, I consider them all as experts because they are first hand users of their personal toilet systems. What is fascinating is each of them had the same exact response on why they think people would not change the way they poop. Geoffrey Pearce, said it in the simplest way, “it’s psychologically traumatizing, to completely re-configure the way we think about poop.”
Whenever Alexandre would visit my house, he used the bidet- our bum gun. In time he was able to wield it with the precision of a sniper, with this he became an authority with all things toilet related. In his job at the Robot Shop, where apparently they share information with no regard for professional boundaries, someone mentioned their interest in purchasing a bidet. He deftly answered the question with the grace of a ballerina, if the ballerina in question was a chunky piece of poo and the theater was his bathroom. Most people would never have to re-invent the way they used the toilet. I did it when I immigrated to Canada- a drastic lifestyle change. Alexandre, however was simply coerced by a well-meaning girlfriend.
The prudish sentiments people may have that prevents them from discussing about poop in a critical manner, or their reluctance to change, hinders progress. Perhaps, it is because of cost, Toto washlets- with the heated seats and blowdryers, that completely eliminate the need for toilet paper to pat-dry, can be bought in US and Canada at a steep 600$. For most people, hacking their bathrooms to be greener is not feasible. But it can be done, and that change starts with being curious and open about how the rest of the world does their business.
Ellis, Robert P. “John Harington.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (2015): Research Starters. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.
Rodriguez- McRobbie, Linda. “Toilet Paper History: How America Convinced the World to Wipe.” Mental Floss. Mental Floss Magazine, 07 Nov. 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. <http://mentalfloss.com/article/23210/toilet-paper-history-how-america-convinced-world-wipe>.
The United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1948. Web. 25 Apr. 2016 <http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/>.
Nakagiri, Anne, et al. “Are Pit Latrines In Urban Areas Of Sub-Saharan Africa Performing? A Review Of Usage, Filling, Insects And Odour Nuisances.” BMC Public Health 16.(2016): 1-16. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.
Sohrabi, Sahand, Reza Malekzadeh, Reza Ansari, and Farin Kamangar. “Squatting and Risk of Colorectal Cancer:A Case-Control Study.” Middle East Journal of Digestive Diseases. Iranian Association of Gastroerterology and Hepatology, 10 Sept. 2011. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4017696/>.
Robbins, Noelle. “Flushing Forests.” World Watch Magazine May 2010: Volume 23. Print.
World Health Organization. “Evaluations of the Costs and Benefits of Water and Sanitation Improvements at the Global Level.” Water Sanitation Health. Web. 27 Apr. 2016. <http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/wsh0404summary/en/>.