What is the value of a restroom?

November 11, 2013
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This guest blog post is from Kyle Earlywine from Green Flush Technologies for World Toilet Day 2013. Please check out our ToiletsUSA page for more info. Follow #ToiletsUSA, #LiftTheLid, and #CelebrateTheToilet.

At risk of sounding like an old Mastercard commercial, some things are just priceless – like not having an “accident” in a public setting. Forty percent of adults aged 30 to 70 have bladder control issues and finding a restroom can sometimes be an emergency. But even for the 60% who don’t have issues it’s no small matter. The average person uses the toilet 6 to 8 times a day or roughly 2,500 times a year. Many of those times will require public facilities or else cause a familiar but dreaded discomfort.

Salish 1 High ResWhen I first got into the business of making restrooms three years ago I was excited to work in a business that is a basic part of life for every human being. People typically have to remember no more than a few hours back to personally relate to what I build. Yet what I find so surprising is how often I have heard people question the value of a public restroom. The most vivid example of this was years ago when I explained to a friend that restrooms cost tens of thousands of dollars. In his shocked reply he asked, “why not buy a sports car and poop in that?”

This sentiment is not unique. Some people think of restrooms as small buildings that should cost a few thousand dollars to install and get cleaned once a week by a janitor on minimum wage. People often balk at the cost of the Portland Loo, $90,000 for the unit and perhaps $15,000 a year for the cleaning and maintenance. When The Oregonian ran an article on the Loo last April, the online comments were largely in opposition ranting against wasteful government spending and treating the Loos as handouts to the homeless.

From an expense standpoint, most of the public see restrooms as cheap structures with ordinary toilets. This unfortunately is not viable in most public settings. A shed with a porcelain toilet may be cheap but it will likely last a few weeks before the local arsonists and vandals have their way with it. The Loo is expensive not because it is luxurious; it is in fact very spartan. It is expensive because it has to withstand as many as a million uses while defending against very motivated vandals over the course of decades. The task set before a public toilet is extraordinary. To find that one costs as much as a sports car should not be a surprise.

Restroom InteriorInstead of asking why restrooms are expensive we should ask whether the benefit is worth the cost. My business conducted research on this in the context of golf. We surveyed 81 golfers (67 male, 14 female) at a local driving range and asked them how much more they would be willing to spend on green fees to have access to a flush restroom instead of a porta-potty. The vast majority of respondents were willing to pay more and the median response was $5. Considering that the average green fee is somewhere around $34, that’s a pretty big deal. Looking at a course that gets 30,000 visits a year, which is on the low side of average, a couple of restrooms would provide a value of $150,000 to the course every year and millions of dollars over the course of their use. Compare that with urban public restrooms like the Loo that have more visitors and even a price of $90,000 looks like a bargain.

Perhaps it is not an accident that World Toilet Day is so close to our American Thanksgiving holiday. There are few moments in life that inspire more thankfulness than finding a toilet when in need. We should celebrate, not condemn, the availability of public toilets and at least for one day remember how fortunate we are to have access to clean, comfortable sanitation.

 

 

 

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    Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human (PHLUSH) was founded in Portland, Oregon and today collaborates with groups across North America.

    PHLUSH is a member of the World Toilet Organization and a partner in the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance.

    Our Mission Through education and advocacy, PHLUSH helps local governments and citizen groups to provide equitable public restroom availability and to prepare for a pipe-breaking seismic event with appropriate ecological toilet systems.

    Our Vision Toilet availability is a human right and well-designed sanitation systems restore health to our cities, our waters and our soils.

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