Why public toilets should pay you.

Why public toilets should pay you.

Why public toilets should pay you.

Science, technology, and life.
July 9 2008 8:30 AM

Crap and Trade

Why public toilets should pay you.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

What? You've been giving away your urine for free?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

All these years, you've been sitting there like an idiot—or standing, or squatting, or whatever it is you do—pissing away a perfectly good liquid asset. Turns out, you could have sold it.

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Many of us haven't just been giving our waste away; we've been paying to unload it. Hundreds of cities have automated public toilets, known as APTs. In New York or Los Angeles, you drop in a quarter, and the door opens. But your quarter hardly pays the bills. New York's new APTs reportedly cost more than $100,000  apiece; Los Angeles' cost $300,000; Seattle installed five at a cost of $6.6 million. At 25 cents a flush, 20 to 130 times  a day, a toilet brings in only $2,000 to $11,000 per year.

So how does the math work out? The Los Angeles Times explains:

In Los Angeles, the facilities are part of a 20-year contract between the city and a joint venture of two companies: CBS Outdoor and JCDecaux. The latter, a French firm, has installed thousands of the sleek units worldwide, mostly in exchange for the right to sell the ads that adorn them. It's a common model that is used by the majority of American cities looking to install the loos. L.A. is guaranteed $150 million in revenue over the course of the contract. … The companies foot the bill for installing all the structures, including the toilets, and for the maintenance on each.

So the company pays the city, and in exchange, the city provides eyeballs. The eyeballs are yours. Do you get a cut? A free flush, at least? Nope. You pay.

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The obvious argument for making you pay is that you're getting a service, too: a clean, private place to relieve yourself. If you can't find a john, you'll have to go in the street. But why is this your problem? Why isn't it the city's problem?

To American ears, the question sounds flippant. But look at what's happening in India. Last fall, New Delhi hosted the World Toilet Summit. At the meeting, experts estimated that 700 million Indians lacked access to proper toilets. "Defecating in the open can contaminate water supplies and spread diseases such as diarrhea," Reuters observed. Accordingly, India committed to increase its spending on rural sanitation by almost half, "building toilets for hundreds of millions of its poor and homeless." The country's minister of rural development pledged, "By 2012, India will be free of defecation in the open."

To lure people into the newly built toilets, one Indian locality has come up with a creative idea. On Sunday, the Times of India reported:

Residents of Saliyar Street in Musiri … are getting paid for using toilets. While people elsewhere have to hastily dig into their pockets and shell out a rupee or more to relieve themselves in a dingy public urinal, around 300 families in Musiri have found they can actually profit every time they answer nature's call. Essentially, the system serves two purposes. While it encourages people in the lower middle-class neighbourhood to use toilets, the urine collected goes for research to test its efficacy as a fertiliser.

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The plan seems to be working:

Initially people in Saliyar street were amused when they heard about the use and earn facility. But now the queues are getting longer before the eco sanitation (ecosan) toilet. … Although it was the novelty of the project that initially attracted many, people have also realized the health benefits and stopped using public spaces to relieve themselves. ''Now even children in the locality do not urinate in the open, thanks to the 10 paise incentive," said [a local man].

Could a similar incentive work in the United States? It already does, in a way. Nobody's being paid to use public toilets, as far as I know. But some people get to use them for free. In Los Angeles, for example, the Times reports, "All of the APTs in the city, except two on skid row, charge a quarter for each use." Why the skid-row exception? Two reasons seem pretty clear. First, homeless people don't spend quarters lightly, if they have them at all. Second, if the city doesn't give them a free indoor place to relieve themselves, they'll use a free outdoor place: the street.

You can't exactly sell a lot of advertising around a john for homeless people. That means no company can make money off such a toilet. The toilet's existence, therefore, implies that the city is willing to pay a significant subsidy to dissuade those people from soiling public space.

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Why don't you get subsidized the same way? Because you're no threat. You don't foul sidewalks. If you have to choose between peeing in private for 25 cents and peeing in public for free, you'll cough up the quarter. This might be the only environmental issue where wealthier people pollute less than poor people do.

From an egalitarian standpoint, reverse toilet discrimination makes sense. It's a means test: from each according to ability; to each according to need. But from an environmental standpoint, it's crazy. A central and well-justified principle of environmental law is that the polluter pays. In this case, it's the nonpolluter who pays. The polluter—the person who pees in the street—pays nothing.

When you look at it this way, as India does, the logical conclusion is that public toilets, at a minimum, should be free. If some people want to sit in first class, fine. Charge them a fee to use fancier johns. But no city should treat those space-age, self-cleaning units  as its public toilets. There has to be a widely available option to sit in coach for free.

Or we could try our own version of the Indian experiment. To do that, we'd need to devise an efficient method of converting public-toilet waste into something productive, such as fertilizer, without endangering public health. Before you laugh off this idea, go find out whether your city is already recycling sewage into drinking water.

Or we could go the other way, like Zanzibar, and prosecute  people who relieve themselves outdoors. That's another way the polluter can pay.

I bet somebody will figure out pretty soon how to monetize toilet waste. And it won't be the government; it'll be the private sector. Did you see the New York Times story a few weeks back about restaurant grease? It's being illegally siphoned from filthy bins and barrels. Bandits are selling it for conversion to biodiesel. When bandits start siphoning public toilets, maybe governments will wake up and get in on the action. And you'll stop having to pay.