Chasing Mirages


by on Feb.23, 2010, under Posts

Urination, defecation and flatulence are all favorite topics of mine.  They never get old.  If I live to be 90, I’ll still laugh when someone within earshot lets one rip.  Especially if it’s a shart.  So it’s fitting that my first substantive post is about toilets.

In the past, public toilets in China were notoriously bad – dirty, smelly, leaky, plugged up, and often filled with maggots.  They’re probably still not great in much of the country, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of public toilets in Beijing.  Here’s a urinal I found on Gulou Dajie, in an old neighborhood with lots of hutongs (ancient alleyways) and siheyuan (ancient courtyard-style houses).

Notice anything odd about this urinal?

I’ll give you a hint: how do you flush it?

It’s a waterless urinal!    Though I know they’re becoming more common, I recall seeing only two waterless urinals in the States before, both Clivus Multrums.  WTF is a Clivus Multrum, you ask?  Here’s a picture of a Clivus diagram, taken at the beautiful Walden Pond state park in Concord, Massachusetts:

It’s a composting toilet, no water required!  It has a fan for air circulation, which can easily be powered by a small solar panel.

Two great things about the Clivus Multrum:  1) Unlike oldschool outhouses, they do not stink at all.  Amazing!  2) Some may disagree, but my favorite part of the Clivus experience is that it blows cool air up your butt while you’re pinching loaves.

If you look closely at the urinal picture, you can make out the brand name, Sunming.  I did some searching and found the company’s website, so you can order one for your own home or business.

Last week, I flew out of the Beijing Capital International Airport and was again pleasantly surprised to see waterless urinals.  Unfortunately, a cleaning guy kept hovering around and I didn’t want to get in trouble for taking pictures in an airport.  But this is your lucky day urine luck today.  Someone posted a picture at  According to some sources, the Beijing airport uses Falcon Waterfree urinals, but the one I used was a more prominent toilet brand, maybe Kohler.

Why such a big deal over waterless urinals, you ask.  Even more so than in the States, clean water is a scarce resource in China.  Each urinal flush uses 1-3 gallons of water.  Assuming (conservatively) a public urinal gets flushed 30 times a day, over the course of a year, even the most efficient flushing urinal uses over 10,000 gallons of water.

According to the World Health Organization, a human being’s consumption and hygiene needs can be met with 100 liters of water a day, which converts to 9,600 gallons a year (by one estimate, the average American uses 650 liters a day – over 60,000 gallons a year).  Each flushing urinal replaced with a waterless urinal can save more than enough water to ensure the health of a human being.  You tell me which is the more worthwhile use of 10,000 gallons – the health of a person, or flushing something that flows down on its own?

Even more ridiculous, modern sewage systems mix feces with everything else.  This wastes a great source of fertilizer and increases the load of sewage treatment plants by at least an order of magnitude.  The great majority of used water (e.g. shower water, dishwater, hand-washing water, laundry water, even piss water) does NOT need to be treated rigorously before it is re-introduced into the water cycle, but as soon as you mix poo with it, ALL of it must be treated.  My solution:  Clivuses for everybody!!!

One local NGO trying to advance the cause of enlightened poopers in China is Clean Water Alliances.  Their English website is not perfect, but you can get the general idea of their work.

For further reading, I highly recommend pages 220-222 of Amory Lovins’s book Natural Capitalism.  Shoot, just read the whole book.

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5 Comments for this entry

  • SALArch

    LOVE Lovins’ Natural Capitalism…you’ve inspired a reread!

  • Frances

    Wow, that’s fascinating. I think I’ve been on one of those Clivuses at a national park too, but I hadn’t really thought about how they work.

    So people just need to be trained to sort their poo out of sewage, just like they’re trained to sort their recyclables out of trash.

    You should go work for one of these green toilet companies next! Just tell them your two great passions are poo and environmentalism.

    • Mirage Chaser

      Great suggestions! Let’s design a poo ladle. We’ll be millionaires!

      I should look for business development positions at Clivus.

  • L's Mama

    I’m amused and impressed. At first I thought it was going to be all fluff about poo and toilets, but you actually made a good point about water conservation. Impressive for your second post. Write on and have fun on the other side of the world!

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