Tuesday, November 19, 2013

World Toilet Day: Bringing it Home to UCL

Many things happened to celebrate World Toilet Day, from the ridiculous to the sublime. But one of the most meaningful bits of the day for me was being there for University College London's opening of their Eco Loo to launch the UCLoo festival, which will be running for the next two weeks.

About 50 people gathered in the bitter cold on the quad outside the North Observatory where an Eco Loo has been installed for the two weeks of the festival. We all queued (a good british event!) holding letters that spelled out
The number represents the number of people who still lack access to a loo (Most stats show it's down to 2.5 Billion, but either case it's far too many!)

The queuing was followed by an introduction from Barbara Penner, the festival organiser who got me on board in the first place. She spoke very eloquently about the goal of the festival. They want to go beyond recognising the crisis in developing countries to considering the state of the toilets we use every day. To quote from their website:

... concern about the global sanitation crisis still focuses almost exclusively on what is happening ‘out there’ in the Global South, in Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. What about the Global North, which relies on systems that have not been seriously revisited for 150 years?
The organizers of UCLoo Festival believes is only by looking at sanitation cross-culturally and globally that we may come to consider our own “flush and forget” mentality more critically. Toilets should not be taken for granted. 
Far from being too unimportant to discuss, few technologies do more to create healthy, equitable, and sustainable cities.

So the festival is a celebration and exploration of alternatives not only for philanthropic international purposes, but for all of us here and now. 

No less a man than the Provost himself was present to cut the (loo paper) ribbon on the door. He too had a few words to say about the loo. He reminded us of the heritage of UCL, and it's long and noble connection with sanitary affairs.

The college first opened its doors in 1828. It's mission was ambitious. At a time when most other capitol cities boasted prestigious Universities London was lacking one. The only other major institutions in the UK were Oxford and Cambridge, and both were quite elite and exclusive. Jeremy Bentham, who is considered to be the spiritual father of UCL (though he had no direct involvement with its creation) described them as "the two great public nusciences" and "storehouses and nurseries of political corruption."

UCL was to be open to all, regardless of background (though the £2-£5 course fees still made it un affordable to the working class.) Religion would not be taught, nor would religious affiliation be required for entry. Critics of the college christened it "the radical infidel college" and "the Godless institution of Gower Street."

The college stuck steadfastly to its principals of reason and science.

Among the distinguished faculty of the college was a certain Doctor Edmund Alexander Parkes, who accepted the chair of Hygine in 1860. Parkes died in 1876 from tuberculosis. His colleagues considered the best way to honour him and came up with the idea of a sanitary museum that would be open to all, but was primarily to benefit working men, and, most particularly those who installed sanitary fittings. 

At the opening speech, Sir William Jenner (himself a renowned sanitarian) said: 
Dr Parkes... was one of the most amiable men that ever lived. I think he was the nearest to perfection 
that I have, in my long experience, been acquainted with. He was not only amiable, but he loved his race, and desired on all occasions to benefit others. He thought little of himself, and devoted the last years of his life to the study of hygiene and how it could be applied for the public good, and died deeply regretted by all who knew him. When he was dead the profession thought how they could best honour his memory-what memorial we could erect to so excellent, so good, so honourable, so great a man
…it was determined to found a Museum for the purpose of spreading abroad the knowledge of those principles of hygiene to which Dr. Parkes had devoted the energies of his latter days. And so we joined together to found the Parkes Museum.

The museum was financed by many rich patrons, including the Queen herself, and the opening night was a splendid affair at which a "large and influential" gathering of guests swept up the grand staircase to view the exhibition and listen to several speeches. The upper class had an especial interest in the idea of information for all, because, as Jenner rightly pointed out in his speech, the security of their homes relied on well informed tradesmen.

We have to understand that the re-emergance of the flushing toilet was still relatively new. As architecture was developing and more and more functions from cooking to bathing to defecating were taking place within the home. This means more complex networks of pipes and the emergence of an understanding of houses as living breathing organisms with considerations of air circulation. Endless possibilities for progress, but also an increase in the potential for disaster.

Jenner emphasized his point with a suitably dramatic anecdote:

I happened to come home in the middle of the work (in my home), and the foreman pointed out to me that he had fixed a D - trap to a certain pipe, and I said I would not have a D - trap. He said it was a model thing. When I turned upon him, and said, " A D-trap ; I call it a double D-trap, for it will deal out disease and death."

D-traps always require inspecting. The fact was that these so-called intelligent workmen were desirous of doing what was right, but were ignorant how to do it.

Ignorance, said Jenner, breeds these things. Yet despite the success of the Parkes Museum, which was housed at UCL until 1892, and only closed its doors in 1971 we, as a population, are still largely ignorant about toilets. It comes back to what Barbara calls the "Flush and Forget" mentality. We fear unlikely things like germs on the toilet seat (if you pick up a disease from sitting on it you're doing something very wrong!) but not what happens to our waste, or how it might come back to haunt us. We flush tissues, antibiotics, tampons, condoms, goldfish, mobile phones... all of which gets treated out as best we know how, but the system is not foolproof. 

A flushing toilet has become so synonymous with civilization that it's hard to imagine any other way. 

Opposition to waterborne sanitation has been around for some time, and proponants includeinclude Buckminster Fuller, Theodore Rosovelt and Karl Marx. A few choice pithy quotes: 
“In London they can find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense.” (Marx) 
“Civilized people should have found some other way to dispose of waste than putting it into clean drinking water." (Rosovelt) 

“the biggest waste of water in the country by far. You spend half a pint and flush two gallons” (Prince Philip) 

All this ramble is really in preparation for my tour tomorrow, which will lead toileteers through the campus, discussing all this plus the challenges of catering to an international student body, Jeremy Bentham's principals of utilitarianism ("Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number") and panopticon ("the more closely people are watched the better they will behave") ... what the latter has to do with toilets is a slightly more chilling subject for another blog post. 

The UCLoo Festival runs 19 November to 3 December
A full programme for the festival can be downloaded here

Monday, November 18, 2013

Paying Respects: Holidays that make a difference

How do you catch the imagination of a nation? Or of the world?

World Toilet day is already here in Singapore, and that's my excuse for starting my post a day early (as it's still Monday here in London.) I have been looking forward to the day for awhile, and doubtless there will be much to tell after tomorrow. But in the calm before the storm it seemed a good time to reflect on what the day is actually about.

Number one: It is a chance to raise awareness. Most people don't even know what the day itself is about, let alone that there is a global sanitation crisis. And that's the first hurdle.

I was thinking about how you create a holiday as I rode the bus down Whitehall this morning. Here in London we have just had Remembrance Sunday, and World War I memorials are still covered in freshly laid wreaths paying tribute to the soldiers who gave their lives. Poppies still haven't entirely disappeared from lapels. Tourist gather, whether to pay respects or to gawk.

The poppy has become such an evocative symbol. People may have a diverse range of opinions on the matter, but they know what it means, and poppies have become the center of many debates. The poppies sold by the Royal British Legion support the armed forces, and their fundraising target for 2013 was £37m.

The image has been used since the 1920's and originates from a poem by John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow      
Between the crosses, row on row,   
That mark our place; and in the sky   
The larks, still bravely singing, fly 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,   
Loved and were loved, and now we lie         
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw   
The torch; be yours to hold it high.   
If ye break faith with us who die 
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. 
Before I get called out for disrespecting the dead by bringing them into the toilet debate, here's the eternal question: 1.5 million children die every year because of poor sanitation. That's one every 20 seconds. Where are their memorials? Is their sacrifice less worthy because it was not voluntary? Because they never reached an age where they would be able to make a voluntary sacrifice if called upon. 

They have no means of fighting the enemy. Their enemy is germs. Their weapons: a combination of education and functioning toilets. Weapons that cost less than artillery and cannons, and only save lives rather than destroy them. It should be a no brainer! 

But lapel pins for the cause are distinctly lacking, as is an international moment of silence broadcast on TV. The Queen probably won't be giving a speech. No wreaths will be laid. Even though this cause has an impact on far more people (indeed, on everyone in the world!) And has done since long before nations and boarders were even invented. 

Is it that the crisis is too massive? Too immediate? Too every-day? Too taboo? Not a specific enough event? Probably all of the above and more.

Perhaps it's just because I want to believe it, but I am back to my cry of Art is the way! 
We need a poet of McCrae's caliber to conjure us an image we can get behind (and, though it rather spoils the moment to say it, an image we can market!) A web of symbols and rituals that we can't ignore because we want to participate. 

And in 2015 to mark the success (partial if not complete) of the UN's millennium development goals, why not an arts festival on par with the WWI centenary celebrations due to take off next year? 

World Toilet Day is only 12 years old, so perhaps I am impatient. Maybe it too will come into its place in the limelite when it hits its Centenary. But seeing as these issues are here today, can't we nudge it along a bit?

As a start: if you do nothing else tomorrow, wish someone a Happy World Toilet Day! I can almost guarantee that that will make one more person who knows. We'll have our field of poppies yet, though we have to plant them ourselves. 

The Tipperary Pub on Fleet Street, London, where non-customers
may use the loo for the price of a donation to the Poppy Appeal.
Photo: Simona Della Valley

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Royal Flush: Creative genius and the toilet

When one sets off to see a play about Thomas Crapper and a modern toilet attendant one never quite knows what to expect… but tends to assume (for better or worse) that it will descend into a toilet-humour fest.

In Royal Flush Nick Lane manages to avoid the temptation almost completely… for 2 hours! He doesn’t bat an eyelash at Thomas Crapper’s singularly appropriate surname, nor does he plunge to the depths of mocking a toilet cleaner’s profession. For this alone he should receive a gold medal. 

Further admiration to the playwright for the fact that he sets out to explore the relationship between Man and Toilet as akin to Frankenstein and his creature: both characters in the two (very different) halves of the production have the slight spark of mad genius to see the toilet as having potential for great things (as well as great annoyance). Though neither part is a gothic thriller, both look at human interaction, both on a human-to-human and human-to-technology level. 

Part I tells the story of Thomas Crapper, through the gimik of his writing a letter to an old flame.  From   it is a touching and thoroughly researched rags to riches story.
Photo: Rich Seam Theatre Company
his apprenticeship in London, through to his engagement to installing royal Toilets at Sandringham

I had the special privilege of watching the play in the company of the current owner of Thomas Crapper & Co. who not only knows the toilets back to front, but is responsible for the updated additions of Thomas Crapper’s biography. So it was for all the world like watching a beloved Shakespeare play in the company of the Bard himself (or close as I’ll probably ever get!)

My favorite memory of the evening will undoubtedly be looking at each other with a knowing smile when Crapper eluded to the one less-fortunate innovation: the bottom slapper toilet (you can read more about that in my Thomas Crapper & Co. blog post!)

Part II brings us forward to 2012 where  a disenfranchised ‘Maintenance engineer’ (toilet cleaner) is getting ready for the royal visit to a new wing of the Old Folks home where he works. This half is more fragmented, faster paced and slightly more scatological (though still pun-avoiding!) There are some clever links to part I… through mentions of Crapper and Shelly’s Frankenstein, and royal connections. Association with the toilet may sometimes be a burden but it also has the potential to offer god-like power (or so our hero sometimes believes… and in some ways he is right.)

In the end it was all an elaborate set up for a punch line that neither I nor my companion saw coming and was perfectly delivered… so once again commendations to the playwright and the actor.

Matthew Booth’s solo performance is quite captivating. It takes a rare actor to sustain a play of that length, commanding a single character with enough variety to tell a story. He slips in and out of supporting roles with remarkable agility, never losing his core narrative. 

As a whole the piece has great potential, but plenty of room for development. Its biggest weakness (which, let’s face it, is the weakness of most new works…) is that is needs to be tightened. Though, as an actor, Booth has no trouble remaining engaging for the entire two hours the narrative could be consolidated more concisely without loosing the essence of the story. Use of imagery and stronger blocking might have been helpful in some places as well; particularly in Crapper’s fairly technical descriptions of his water closets, and in the frequent (and sometimes slightly awkward) transitions between scenes in the second half, which broke up the narrative. But with an essentially strong core all the rest can be developed in time.

Any work which takes such a nuanced look at the fundamental relationship between creative genius and toilet should be celebrated!

If you’re in Halifax on November 17 there’s still time to catch the première. If not, stay tuned for version 2.0, which I sincerely hope will be touring the country before too long!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Dungaroo: Odorless, waterless, economical... and enjoyable!

Back in June, when the idea of toilet entrepreneurs was still new to me, an article in Forbes caught my attention: “Check The Bathroom For Your Next Startup Idea” It was about a young American entrepreneur named Liz Morris, who had created a waterless toilet called 'The Dungaroo'.

Liz seemed a woman after my own heart, and so I sent her an e-mail asking if she'd do an interview for my book, and she very kindly agreed. Skyping from our respective co-working office spaces we carried out my very first interview. She was a natural stand-up comic fully embracing the humorous side of the work, while staying thoroughly grounded in her project and in the knowledge of the problems she was tackling.

When I talked with her in June they had only just released a prototype. This week the Dungaroo has launched an Indigogo campaign, so though the book is still an odd assortment of scribbles and articles sitting in folders marked "to read" it seems an appropriate time for this particular interview to see the light of day.

Into the Loo: From Packaging to Poo

The first thing I always want to know from anyone working in the Sanitation industry is how they got there. What makes a person think "you know what I'd like to do with my life? Create toilets!" 

Liz's story is a particularly good one.

Her background is in product packaging. She earned her BA from the University of Florida and worked for companies like Kraft Foods in England. Her "ahha" moment came when one of her professors asked her "How would you package poo?"She went on to complete her Master's Degree in Environmental Sciences and Engineering in 2011, and came up with the Dungaroo. She told me "I realised I was spending more time doodling toilets than actually writing my thesis!"

The Dungaroo: A dry solution 

In toilet land waterborne sanitation is a big topic. We often think of a flushing toilet as the highest marker of a civilization. Well… maybe not often… but when you are forced to think about toilets, that’s what many would choose. For many people on the planet this is neither realistic or practical.

The beauty of the Dungaroo is it maintains the user experience of a flushing loo, while disposing of the waste in a unique way. With each "flush" gears turn and seal it off in a plastic bag which drops into the tank below. So it doesn’t require serious behavioural change for those who are used to the convenience,

The sanitized contents can then be put disease free into a landfill. It’s not an ideal solution, and ultimately they want to partner with organizations which have an interest in actually using the waste in more productive and sustainable ways. Meantime it at least prevents the spread of disease, contamination of water supply and other problems commonly associated with poor sanitation.

Doing Business

Sanitation Creations was founded in 2011. Liz partnered with her childhood friend Dan, who has an accounting background. She said it was a perfect partnership because, "Not only did we potty train together. Now we are building potties together!"   

The company initially entered as a competitor for the Gates 'Reinvent the toilet challenge.' Though they lost out to the California Institute of Technology's solar powered toilet, they continued with the project, learning about business as they went. 

Liz had a lot of wisdom to offer on the life of a budding entrepreneur. “It’s about patience and perseverance.” That’s a quality needed for for any entrepreneurial endeavour, but she points out that there are extra challenges for a physical product like a toilet, as opposed to digital apps. You can’t just get a bunch of coders in your living room and have something to immediately test. You have to wait for suppliers who won’t always tell you how long it’s going to take or even be on board with the idea. There are a lot of people involved in making a toilet. “You get told ‘no’ every day, but you stick by what you believe in. Sometimes you show them the prototype and they go ‘we don’t make that.’ We respond, ‘yes you do. We just want to use it for something different than you’re used to.’”

Though her work and a large part of her interest are in provision for developing countries her aim is to set up as a profit-making enterprise, rather than becoming dependant on NGOs and grant funding that might be pulled at any time. This allows them to make the product into a viably commercial enterprise and will give a more solid foundation for international work, where there is great social need but less profit to be made.

The potential western market for the product includes boats, cruise ships, airplanes, busses and camper vans, and vacation homes away from municipal sewage lines. Any of these would have to have a septic truck pump their waste, so the Dungaroo can essentially provide the same service with considerably less smell (which anyone who has been nearby a porta-potty being cleaned will appreciate!)

Even in developing countries Liz is open about the fact that there is a use in charging for the product. People have to place a value on it. She compares this her first computer (bought by her parents) to the one that she bought herself. “In college I was always dropping it. Now I treat it more carefully than I would a baby.”

Toilets are something we all should value. This is certainly a good month to show your support with World Toilet day coming up, and campaigns like #celebratethetoilet. You can support the IndieGoGo campaign for Sanitation Creations launch of the Dungaroo Here... and better yet, spread the word! If you start talking to everyone you know about toilets you'll be surprised to learn how interested they will be!