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Waterless Urinals" (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

I examine restrooms where ever I travel because their design captures some essence of a society since every strata of humanity needs to use one. This fact makes a toilet a very political thing.

For example, last week I used a rogue, in fact nearly illegal toilet: A waterless urinal at Chicago's O'Hare airport. While good enough for the Taj Mahal and Disneyworld, they aren't up to par for the State of Illinois.

The urinal's plastic cartridge at its bottom contains a thin layer of oil, which forms a trap for odors - so no need for water for flushing. These urinals offer great advantages over the standard units: They use less water, take less plumbing and maintenance, and they're hard for vandals to clog with paper towels.

Sounds like a no brainer for most businesses to install waterless urinals, yet Illinois's plumbing code prohibits them. To install them in Chicago the City got an exemption that allowed a 60-day test.

Why the resistance? Well, as I said a toilet becomes the nexus for all manner of social forces and human behaviors. Plumbers Unions, for example, oppose the new urinals. No water means less plumbing, which means, of course, less work. So, they've mounted a mighty protest claiming that the new urinals smell. They also assert that germs grow on the plastic insert, suggesting that without a steady stream of water bacteria will become glued to the toilet and contaminant the world.

But it isn't the Unions alone that prevent installation of the new waterless urinals. Human nature plays its part.

Imagine if you were in charge of constructing a large building, which needed water closets on each floor. Would you choose the flush urinals that've worked for years, or some kind of new-fangled technology? Human nature pushes toward the former.

Not suprisingly, then, what's been accelerating the waterless urinals's acceptance so far has been mother nature. The first surge in sales occurred in the mid-1990s when harder than expected drought hit the west. Even so, it isn't really nature, it's politics that drives the adoption of the new toilets. The drought forced politicians dealing with water shortages to allow waterless urinals. In fact, right now their sales double every year.

So, even if on some rational level a waterless urinal makes sense it shouldn't surprise us that adoption depends on all sorts of factors. Aristotle got it right over 2000 years ago when he wrote: "Man is by nature a political animal." That in turn makes humankind's tools and conveniences, like urinals, subject to the whims of politics.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises