Braindump: A Reading List on the Future of Sanitation, Toilets, and Bathrooms

Five great bathroom reads (that you don’t necessarily need to read on the toilet).

By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Some of the most delightful stories I’ve read recently are, surprisingly, about going to the toilet. Did you read Sabrina Imbler’s piece for the New York Times about roosting bats who hang out in pit latrines in Tanzania? Or Ryan Hockensmith’s ode to the mobile commode at ESPN? While not entertaining in the same way, Nandita Dinesh’s essay at Guernica, “Thinking About Toilets,” is a beautiful meditation on her life, privilege, grief, collective trauma, and India.

It feels odd to say, but I love bathroom reads: examinations on the potential of poop, from unconventional life-saving treatments called fecal microbiota transplants to the humanure movement — and the cultural shift toward understanding and embracing the relationship to our own bodily waste (versus the very Western attitude of just getting rid of it). My reading list on really good shit seven years ago covers some of this ground, but I wanted to gather a follow-up collection of complementary reads, this time focused on the future of toilets, bathrooms, and — more broadly — innovation across the field of sanitation and waste management.

What we do and what we leave in the bathroom may not be an exciting topic of discussion to some people, who would rather hold their noses and look away. But I encourage you to take the plunge with these five informative and fascinating reads.

Where Did All the Public Bathrooms Go? (Elizabeth Yuko, Bloomberg CityLab, November 2021)

Dig deeper into the history of toilets with Chelsea Wald’s piece on ancient loos and sewers at Nature.

For decades, cities across the United States have neglected public restrooms, leaving millions with no place to go when they’re out and about. The disappearance of public toilets became even more apparent in the early days of the pandemic, when basic facilities shut down. As Yuko reports, the U.S. has only 8 toilets per 100,000 people — tied with Botswana. Why is it so hard to find a place to pee? What does the lack of access say about deeper inequities? And what would it take for public toilets to make a comeback, and how would we design these spaces? This is an excellent read on the rise and fall of public restrooms and why a lack of toilets became an American affliction.

That reality was underscored as the pandemic dragged on. Infection fears led cities to padlock the few public restrooms that were available. Stories emerged about Amazon and Uber drivers resorting to peeing in bottles, while unhoused individuals relied on adult diapers or five-gallon buckets filled with kitty litterPublic urination complaints spiked in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., especially when crowds flooded the streets in the summer of 2020 to protest the murder of George Floyd.

The presence or absence of restrooms in public spaces has long been an indication of a particular group’s place in society, says Laura Norén, a postdoctoral associate at New York University and co-editor of Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing. From women to people of color to those with disabilities, vulnerable communities have struggled to have this most fundamental of needs accommodated. Most recently, transgender individuals have found themselves targeted in bathroom-backlash debates.

In the Tales Told by Sewage, Public Health and Privacy Collide (Miranda Weiss, Undark, April 2021)

Informed by the sewage research of retired environmental scientist Christian Daughton, countries in Europe have embraced wastewater-based epidemiology for decades. Wastewater research — initially focused on analyzing illegal drug residues in sewage, like traces of cocaine, to measure community-wide use — has become a crucial public health measure in countries all over the world during the COVID-19 crisis. But why has the U.S. taken so long to catch on? Weiss takes a close look at Daughton’s influential work, and how this area of epidemiology, which is fast and inexpensive, could help transform public health in the country.

But it wasn’t long before Murray started getting pushback. No one wanted their city to be labeled the cocaine capital of the country. There also was a public perception of “government scientists looking in your toilet to bust you for smoking a joint,” he said. Even though wastewater testing involved pooled samples that couldn’t identify individuals, households, or even neighborhoods, the perception was that it invaded people’s privacy.

By early summer, Daughton’s approach was in use on six continents and in nearly every U.S. state. As researchers all over the world jumped into wastewater testing, they realized that sewage provided a picture of the virus in communities days — sometimes even up to two weeks if clinical test results were delayed — before clinical tests and could give officials a jump start in responding.

Reinventing the Toilet (Lina Zeldovich, Mosaic, June 2017)

I used to live in a solar-powered tiny house on wheels. Of all the changes I made to my day-to-day in that space, pooping in a five-gallon plastic bucket, covering it with cocoa bean shells until it was ready to dump into our humanure bin, and ultimately transforming our waste into nutrient-rich matter for the garden was the most educational and unexpectedly enlightening experience.

Why are we still using clean water to flush away our waste? I love Zeldovich’s story about London-based company Loowatt, which created an off-grid toilet system that uses no water and turns waste into electricity and fertilizer. This waterless woo was piloted in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar — one of many places around the world where traditional flush toilets just aren’t an option. Is this the toilet of the future?

This very manual setup sounds very archaic compared to the slick and convenient arrangements of the Western world. But sanitation experts think that in the era of climate change, when droughts and floods are becoming increasingly common, the West may have something to learn from the little waterless loos piloted in penniless Madagascan neighbourhoods. With the world’s population ever-increasing, places that historically relied on water for sanitation may have to reconsider how they flush.

Giving every teenager a phone is easy, in the sense that cell towers are fairly simple to install. But processing poo is a much stickier problem. To shape shit into something harmless and useful takes a very concentrated effort.

The Secret MVP of Sports? The Port-a-Potty (Ryan Hockensmith, ESPN, January 2022)

The portable bathroom business in America is at $17 billion and growing, writes Hockensmith, mainly because of the demand for places to pee at large-scale sports events. We featured this story in a recent Top 5 list for good reason: it’s a breezy read on the history of portable bathrooms, an eye-opening look at port-a-potty disposal and maintenance through the eyes of a sanitation crewmember, and a glimpse into the next generation of bathrooms — ones that are hopefully more inclusive and private and, interestingly, look a lot like today’s port-a-potties.

For each port-a-potty, Cansdale must replace two rolls of toilet paper from a latched holder, suck out as much as possible from inside the bowl and clean the seat with water and a scrub brush. He gives a quick hand sanitizer check but has never had to refill one at a Bills game. “The truth is, nobody’s washing their hands,” Cansdale says. “They just want to get in and get out.”

The Modern drivers call it a “half-suck” because the goal is speed and just to get the stalls usable for after the game. They’ll do full sucks and total cleans starting Monday morning.

The half-suck math is daunting: At about 40 toilets per guy, with people streaming in and out of the port-a-potties as they try to do their jobs, the cleaners will have less than three minutes per toilet, all while trying to navigate giant trucks through tiny windows of crowded parking lots. On top of that, the weather report says some wicked Buffalo wind and rain is about to roll in right around kickoff today, with temperatures expected to drop down into the 30s.

About 10 minutes before kickoff, Cansdale opens the truck door, and there’s a light in his eyes. “It’s go time,” he says. “Buckle in, this is going to be a wild, smelly ride.”

Disruption Has Come for Toilet Paper” (Dan Nosowitz, Vox, July 2019)

Toilet paper giants like Charmin, Cottonelle, and Quilted Northern primarily use freshly cut trees to make their products. In addition to cutting down perfectly fine trees, it takes an awful lot of water and energy — and chemicals! — to convert trees into rolls of toilet paper. Thankfully, startups like Who Gives a Crap and No. 2 have swept through to offer more eco-friendly paper alternatives, from bamboo to sugarcane. But are the companies selling these slickly packaged rolls really that much more ecologically responsible? Or is this all just greenwashing?

Samira Far, who founded No. 2, was looking for a new idea in 2017. She had sold her last company — a chain of eight nail salons called Bellacures that were created to be cleaner and nicer than competing salons. “I guess I have a passion for seeking out areas of improvement in both products and services,” she says.

She landed on toilet paper, seeing it as “a very outdated industry,” and started looking into it. “Initially I looked at it as: The branding is super old, the packaging is super old, there’s a way to do this better so it’s cute for the bathroom,” she says. “But in my research I actually started to see that there’s actually a way to do it so it’s environmentally friendly and doesn’t have as many chemicals inside of the paper as it usually does.”