Crap and Trade, Revisited

Science, technology, and life.
July 18 2008 8:43 AM

Crap and Trade, Revisited

Last week, I looked at the economics of pay toilets and argued that the toilets should pay you . In India, a pilot project is cleaning up the environment and trying to generate fertilizer by paying people to use " eco-sanitation " toilets. Meanwhile, American cities are charging people to use expensive, high-tech, energy-consuming Automated Public Toilets (APTs). Does the American approach really make sense?

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William Saletan William Saletan

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

Now it turns out that in at least one city, we're not even getting nicer toilets for our money. Two days ago, Seattle dumped its APTs. Reason No. 1: They'd been taken over by druggies and hookers. Reason No. 2: They were " less cost-effective than regular public restrooms ."

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And how. Unlike other cities, Seattle wasn't charging APT users. But the eye-popping number is the cost of its units. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that according to the manufacturer, "A single stall automated toilet now goes for $200,000 to $220,000 plus on-site installation." And that's not even the real number, by a long shot. The total cost to the city, including maintenance, has been about $1 million per toilet .

How can toilets cost that much? Read the reviews. They have " handsfree washing and drying ability and an emergency button that automatically dials 911." They have " automated floor scrubbers " and are " cleaned by jets of water between each use ." They have "metal doors that open at the press of a button and stay closed for up to 20 minutes. The units clean themselves after each use, disinfecting the seats and power-washing the floors ."

Nice, huh? So how did they get taken over by junkies and prostitutes?

One reason seems to be that Seattle put them in places where that was likely to happen. Another reason could be that the toilets were free. I doubt it, since free APTs on skid row in Los Angeles haven't suffered the same fate . A third explanation is privacy: 20 minutes to yourself in a sealed chamber is perfect for taking care of your next fix or giving a blow job.

The toilets ended up so gross and scary that even homeless people wouldn't use them. One woman supplies this fantastic quote to the New York Times : "I used to smoke crack in there. But I won't even go inside that thing now. It's disgusting."

As a result, the APTs failed at the basic job of any public toilet: curbing outdoor excrement. A city spokesman ruefully tells the Seattle Times : "Even when these restrooms were running, we were still getting reports of people urinating and defecating in public." The spokesman says that at this point, Seattle "doesn't have a plan for providing public-restroom services" and is still "trying to figure it out."

Here's a wild idea: Bag the high-tech fetish. Put up plain old public toilets. That seems to be the lesson from yesterday's New York Times :

Rather than automated toilets, some cities are looking for cheaper alternatives that would be cleaned by human attendants. One prototype, to be installed next month in Portland, Ore., would cost $50,000 each, compared with some $300,000 for an automated unit. Randy Leonard, a Portland city commissioner, helped design that toilet, which in addition has open gaps at the top and bottom of the door, a feature discouraging drug abuse, prostitution and the like. But given that lesser privacy, it is unclear how popular such a toilet might be ...

Sorry, folks: Lesser privacy is the price you have to pay to keep out the druggies and hookers. And human attendants are the price of keeping toilets affordable. For the cost of one APT, you could put up six to 20 of those low-tech Portland units.

Now, if the Indians can just figure out how to monetize the waste, we can start paying users. Eco-san , anyone?

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