Sunday, August 4, 2013

Festival Toilets: Personal encounters

Since my interest in Toilets began I have generally heard dire things about festival toilets. So I was unsure what to expect at my first true festival experience at Camp Bestival in Dorset this weekend. I was rewarded with a larger than expected range of toilet options and a couple very interesting conversations and discoveries.

Toilets may not be the first thing most people would think about in this case, but it's probably safe to say they are one of the absolute most important. The camp has a capacity of 30,000 people (thanks wikipedia), so you're probably looking at somewhere in the vicinity of half a million loo visits over the weekend (admitting this is a rough number. Not everyone is there every day, but you've got artists and crew to account for too.)

If an average bladder can hold 16 oz you're looking at 62,500 gallons of urine over the weekend! Not to mention about 32 tons of poop!  You can imagine what kind of disaster it would be if we were all doing that in the open!

I got into camp around 1:30 on Friday with the rest of my youth dance company. We spent a good long while finding a camping place and getting our tents pitched... something that takes a good long while when you have 12 people to stick with and the not-particularly-organised check-in system keeps sending you round in circles.

We were pretty well spoilt in the artists section with D&P Luxury Toilets which have a cabin, sinks, proper (if blue) flush, sinks, mirrors, and most of the comforts you'd expect of any decent home toilet. Their only fault was that they smelled a bit toilety. Wheelchair users had slightly less luxurious choice, with a bog standard A1 Loohire (which had a paper sign on the door indicating it doubled as a baby changing facility).

 The first really exciting toilet discovery came when we were making our way back to camp after our dress rehearsal. My eye was caught by a big orange tent labeled When Nature Calls with the rather clever slogan "The Only Place To Go!"

I wasn't able to investigate right away, but decided I simply had to find out what it was about. There was a long agonizing wait while everyone gathered together, sorted out dinner vouchers, found the food tent, and negotiated with the dinner lady, as we had mistakenly been given lunch vouchers (she wasn't super keen to accept them, but the simplest rout when faced with eleven hungry people who haven't eaten in 8 hours is not to argue!) When at last I had wolfed down my chicken curry and chocolate cake I explained to our chaperone what I wanted to do, and why it was vitally important I be allowed to wander off on my own for a bit (though I am generally considered a responsible adult, some members of the company are as young as 14, so by the strictest common denominator we were all kept good track of for the weekend. Hence the chaperone.) She gave me the puzzled disbelieving face I get from most people when I first mention my favorite topic, but she granted permission, so off I went.


The entrance was busy. Two men were manning the fort, collecting money from the public. From watching I gathered it was £2 a use, and they had run out of bills so were routinely giving change for 20's in coins. It was past 9pm at this point, so they had probably had a long day of it.

When there was a momentary lull I approached one of them and asked to speak to the person in charge. Turns out I had got it in one- the man's name was Tim, and the company was his brainchild. I hastily explained what I was about (the tour, the blog and the book.) He was cheerful enough, and indulgently agreed to answer my questions, pointing out that "that's an odd thing to be interested in. I didn't press the fact that he was the one who actually owned a toilet business.

It turns out that Tim is, by profession, a property developer in the Isle of Wight.  He started the business in 2011 in response to the normally terrible conditions at festivals, to provide an option for those who don't mind paying a bit extra for the luxury of a clean seat and warm running water. The toilets are manned by cheerful attendants who clean each stall after every use, ensuring that no one will ever have to suffer a less than optimal toileting experience. He personally accompanies the toilets to every event, because, as he explained, he has his brand reputation to maintain. All it takes is one less than happy customer tweeting a picture of a dirty stall to undo the ethos he works so hard to uphold.

He explained that the pay-as-you-go method was a one-off for camp bestival, due to the family nature of the event (for £20 a wrist-band for unlimited uses could be purchased for the weekend). Normally wrist-bands for exclusive access can only be purchased online in advance, and are limited to a couple thousand. He told me proudly that his formula for how many stalls and attendants are needed is "a bit of a trade secret" but revealed that they expect about 8000 uses/day at full capacity.  

He invited me to come have a look inside, which I was more than reasonably excited to do. We went through the rather grand inflatable orange enterance to the spacious tent, whuch had about 40 toilet cubicles as well as some orange bean bag chairs. It's toilet entrepreneurship in the true spirit of Victorians such as George Jennings... making "spending a penny" far more than a simple bowel movement, but a complete experience...  something of a novelty even.

He showed me a cubicle, and explained that they use a vacuum flush (like you see on airplanes) which is much more water efficient than most toilets, and is much more powerful. He even let me have a free go! Again, I was more pleased by this than any normal person ought to be.

One thing that has helped the company is the strong brand reputation they have built. It's fun and memorable, and imprinted on almost everything in the space. They even sell t-shirts... which of course became my one indulgent purchase of the festival. It may be making an appearance on one of my tours in the near future.

My next interesting toilet experience was the following evening. I was on my way back to camp to turn in for the night and stopped off to use the loos in the artists bar area. While I was washing my hands one of the toilet attendants came in and started cleaning. My attention was captured as I heard her cheerfully chatting to other hand-washers about her job and the general aimiability of the toilet-cleaning staff. "We're not here to have a shit weekend," was her catch phrase. She added, as she scrubbed the sink "it helps that I'm a bit OCD." I told her I would very much like to talk to her when she was done, and stationed myself outside the door.

It took a good fifteen or twenty minutes as she did both the men's and the ladies, working around users all the while (the queue was not long, but the flow of people was steady). Thankfully I wasn't apprehended by security during this time... which I was half afraid I would be standing outside the toilets taking pictures and scribbling in my notebook. This is perhaps the advantage to being a young female in this particular area of research. I imagine a man in the same situation would have come under much more scrutiny.

At last she was done in the gents, and I grabbed her on the way out. I'm not sure she had really expected me to wait all that time, but she was cheerful enough, and was more intrigued and less disgusted by my story than most people are. She had to continue her rounds, but let me tag along for a bit.

Her name was Becks, and toilet cleaning was not her full-time job. The company, Truly Scrumptious, is owned by her friend Sarah, and consists of a small and close team. She says it definitely helps in that business to know who you're working with rather than just get a group of strangers, because at the end of the day you can have a cup of tea and chat about what you have found in the loo (and there are apparently some good stories. Think about that next time you're tempted not to clean up after yourself! The toilet cleaners see all!) I asked how many were on the team for the event. She wasn't sure off the top of her head, but rattled off names. Probably about thirteen or fourteen. She was part of the team on the artist's section only, where the standards are slightly higher than the main festival. After disappearing for a bit into the VIP section she popped out to ask if I wanted to see what a portaloo should look like. The amused security guard obliged us with a flashlight. Clean as new walls and seat, loo roll placed next to the seat and two spares neatly stacked in the corner. It truly was a thing of beauty. I asked her how long it was expected to stay that way and she sighed and said "we do what we can."


She still had four hours of her shift to go (finishing at 2am, making the rounds from toilet to toilet in her section) so I left her to it, but not before giving her my contact details and asking her to promise to get Sarah in touch. She gave me a hug before I left and said "I feel so... appreciated!"

Our final morning I finally got to experience the true grit of festival toilets. We had to get up quite early, and when I went to the luxury camp toilets there was no loo roll to be seen, and blue flushing liquid (along with other substances) was splashed all over the seats and floor. There were empty beer cans and wads of dirty tissue. I searched 7 portaloos before I finally found a roll. Some of them were in pretty poor condition as well. There was poo on the floor and walls of at least two of them. Almost as though someone actively decided to trash the place. I thought of Becks' perfect loo, and it made me mad.

Is it really so hard to clean up after ourselves? Experts have apparently done studies on the degree of respect people show for public toilets. Apparently the farther removed the less inhibited and more entitled they are. But this is, I suppose, why businesses like When Nature Calls have such a valuable place. It raises an interesting question: what would be an ideal situation for toilets? Would it be one where every toilet is attended and cleaned as regularly as WNC? Or where every person took the time to clean their own toilet (a practice that Ghandi tried -somewhat unsuccessfully- to promote). Or, given that there are a range of time places and people that call for different things, is the sort of free market of toilets that currently exists perhaps the best solution?

I should mention the one last type of toilets at the festival. These were composting toilets, and I didn't get a chance to speak with anyone representing them. The company is Natural Event and their rather clever slogan is "changing the world from the bottom up." The verdict on these: actually fairly pleasant (smelling more like woodchips than anything else, but no paper in any of the stalls when I tried to use them in the afternoon.




I hope to get the chance to chat further with people at both these companies eventually, but for present, I will sign off for the night and crawl back into my real bed (hurrah!)



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