The Three Fundamental Flaws Of The Modern Toilet

My unwinking, analytical gaze of efficiency now turns to the toilet. Unfortunately, the design of the modern Western toilet is highly inefficient, in fact, it is so inefficient that it is actually harming our health. The modern toilet has only been around for about 150 years — the “porcelain throne” was created to “give dignity” to the water closet, rather than considering human physiology.

There are three fundamental problems with the Western toilet:

  1. It’s designed to be used in the sitting position, and this is an ineffectual position for evacuating the bowels
  2. The use of toilet paper is an ineffectual way to clean one’s posterior
  3. Defecating in fresh water, and flushing the feces away for treatment doesn’t make sense

Let’s examine these fundamental problems:

Squat Toilets

Squatting is the natural position for elimination — it makes the process easier and more complete. Two thirds of the human race squat to answer the call of nature.

According to Jonathan Isbit, author of Nature Knows Best: The Health Benefits of the Natural Squatting Position, squatting prevents “fecal stagnation” which is a prime factor in colon cancer, appendicitis and inflammatory bowel disease (more details here). Virtually every physician and physiologist who has ever troubled to write on the subject agrees that the squatting position is the optimal position for elimination (for a survey of the research see The Bathroom by Alexander Kira). For example, F. A. Hornibrook, author of the Culture of the Abdomen, says that unfortunately “constipation has become a contentment in Western countries”.

Squat toilets are also easier to clean, because they are simpler and there’s not as many surfaces to clean.

A Squat Toilet In A Japanese Home

Blue Earth Ceramics is the only manufacturer of squat toilets in the U.S.

Jonathan Isbit sells a device called Nature’s Platform that allows you to squat on a conventional toilet. His description is as follows: “It has a five-degree slope so that you don’t have to balance on the balls of your feet. It folds up in 3 seconds so other family members are not inconvenienced. It is lightweight, but still strong and stable enough to hold a 300-pound man or woman.”

Nature's Platform: A Device To Retrofit Toilets For Squatting

Nature’s Platform: Retrofit Your Toilet For Squatting

Nature's Platform: Converts Regular Toilet To Squatting Toilet

Bidets

Toilet paper an ineffectual way of cleaning one’s posterior. Not to get too graphic — but it just smears more than cleans. Using water for cleaning is much more effective, and it has a therapeutic effect on damaged skin (it’s gentle on rashes or hemorrhoids).

The use of toilet paper also requires enormous resources. We use 36.5 billions rolls of toilet paper in the U.S. each year, this represents at least 15 million trees pulped. This also involves 473,587,500,000 gallons of water to produce the paper and 253,000 tons of chlorine for bleaching purposes. The manufacturing process requires about 17.3 terawatts of electricity annually. Also, there is the energy and materials involved in packaging and transporting the toilet paper to households across the country.

Toilet paper also constitutes a significant load on the city sewer systems, and water treatment plants. It is also often responsible for clogged pipes. In septic systems, the elimination of toilet paper would mean the septic tank would need to be emptied much less often.

Basically, the huge industry of producing toilet paper could be eliminated through the use of bidets. Instead of using toilet paper, a bidet cleans your posterior using a jet of water. Some bidets also provide an air-drying mechanism.

In Japan, high-tech bidets called Washlets are now the most popular electronic equipment being sold–60% of households have them installed. In Venezuela they are found in approximately 90% of households.

Inexpensive bidets are available–you can find a $65 bidet seat that attaches to your toilet. This model uses no electricity or hot water. After using a bidet, most people find cold water is fine, and not particularly shocking to one’s rear. Occasionally, a few sheets of paper are needed to dry oneself. Many people say that even a bidet is unnecessary, the say a garden type pump sprayer works best. Indeed, this method of washing is common in Asia. You can also find simple travel bidets for under $20.

This book is a good source of information on bidets: Everything There Is To Know, From The First and Only Book On The Bidet. The book discusses the different models of bidets, the health aspects and ecological benefits.

Waterless Composting Toilets

Waterless Composting Toilet: Envirolet

Waterless Composting Toilet: Envirolet

The sewer systems we use today are entirely ineffectual and unnecessary. The primary flaw in our design is that we use fresh water to dispose of feces. This is perhaps the most ineffectual thing to do with human manure — it pollutes fresh water, and it requires municipalities to maintain extremely costly sewage treatment infrastructures. Even after treatment, sewage can still wreck havoc on rivers and groundwater. The most effective and straightforward thing to do with sewage is to compost it (or use it to produce fuel via biogas). It’s a valuable resource.

Holding Tank Of Composting Toilet

Holding Tank Of Composting Toilet

I’ve written about the benefits of composting toilets and buildings that are completely sewer-free. See also the Composting Toilet Systems Book and Humanure Handbook for more information.

Other good books on this topic:

Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine To Grow Plants

Reusing The Resource: Adventures in Ecological Wastewater Recycling

Comments

  1. Rehan says

    The Nature’s platform is a good idea – because I think you’d have trouble selling your house with a squat toilet installed. And that goes for a composting toilet as well.

  2. says

    A dry toilet in the Helsinki Museum shows how far behind the times we are. They began non-waterborne handling of human wastes back in the late 1800’s as a way of solving serious problems with water pollution and disease. The water toilet is one of those technologies that is extremely wasteful and destructive. We are facing an immense crisis over lack of clean water and we pollute perfectly good drinking water routinely and thoughtlessly while polluting our waterways with waterborne human wastes.

  3. says

    A dry toilet in the Helsinki Museum shows how far behind the times we are. They began non-waterborne handling of human wastes back in the late 1800’s as a way of solving serious problems with water pollution and disease. The water toilet is one of those technologies that is extremely wasteful and destructive. We are facing an immense crisis over lack of clean water and we pollute perfectly good drinking water routinely and thoughtlessly while polluting our waterways and groundwaters with waterborne human wastes.

  4. says

    Really interesting article. Not that hasn’t been said before, but a solid compilation of ideas with just the right amount of detail. I think it would be really interesting if you had a series of articles about improving different types of rooms, be it with technology or just clever thinking.
    Another thing to keep in mind is that different people have different living arrangements, from houses with a family room, guest room, kitchen, and dining room to single-room flats.
    Thanks. Keep up the good work.

  5. says

    Having traveled the world and useing squatting toilets, I have to comment on one thing I found. If you don’t remove your pants, It’s quite difficult to balance and not make a mess; if you know what I mean.
    This is fine in my hotel room, but at the factory, I would prefer to keep my pants on.

  6. BEN DOVER says

    Insanity…not that I don’t love to lay cable in the woods and all, but saying colon cancer is caused by toilets (and not diet and lack of exercise) to scare people into buying your product is…insanity. Why not put little tables under your feet while on your toilet thus approximating the squatting position?

    Two thirds of the human race needs to get a toilet and some reading material and come out of the Stone Age.

    Like Shatner said on SNL to the Trekkie nerds: “Get a life!”

  7. Aaron says

    What a wonderful article! I’m not going to be impulsive, but I’ll really consider these things.
    My wife suspects she got a yeast infection after using a bidet at a spa, and independent of that, I’m skeptical about those, but toilet paper is definitely very resource intensive. We do already have a dual-flush toilet.
    The squatting concept really seems great. I can only hope our cultural perspectives (and maybe associated clothing) change over the next couple decades to make this more feasible.
    Composting toilets just are so expensive and complex right now, but maybe eventually they’ll spread and be more accessible and understood.
    Again, great article!

    • Embriette says

      She probably actually got the yeast infection from the spa itself, and by that I mean hot tub, if she sat in one. Hot tubs are really unhealthy places to be, and contrary to what people think, they do harbor a lot of bacteria.
      I study Bacteriology and this is one of the things we’ve discussed in a bit of detail.

      • Embriette says

        And yeast infections can be caused by an imbalance in the bacterial community normally residing inside the vagina.
        Hence hot tub = bad bacteria = imbalance = yeast infection/bacterial vaginosis.

  8. says

    Great article.

    Interestingly, the actor Will Smith is a big of the Japanese washlets. Of course, the article that referenced that fact referred to the washlets as “the latest Japanese restroom gadget” whereas I’m sure they’ve been around in Japan for many years if not decades.

    http://www.starpulse.com/news/index.php/2007/03/15/will_smith_is_proud_of_his_toilet

    In my experience, using washlets saves a huge amount of paper, particularly if the washlet has hot-air drying capabilities (as it sounds like Will Smith’s toilets have). Plus washlets leave you feeling much cleaner.

    Regarding the squat toilets, I’m open to trying them, but agree that the logistics of doing so while wearing pants seem challenging.

    One other issue not mentioned in the post — if we are going to use water to flush the toilet, why not use ‘grey water’ recaptured from the sink? I believe there are kits that will capture soapy ‘used’ water from the sink and use it to flush the toilet. In a Portland Oregon theater, I once used a urinal that was flushed using untreated rainwater.

  9. JD says

    Your recommendation of waterless toilets and bidets seem contradictory. I second the call to composting toilets but I think bidets are ridiculous. I’m not going to hose my butt down. I can’t think of a messier or more unsanitary way to clean up. It is also absurd to think that sitting on a toilet leads to constipation or cancer or is “more effective.” These “studies” are bogus.

  10. says

    The squatting toilet vs. sitting toilet thing as a cure for your colon sounds a lot like the ads on late night for miracle pills. Haven’t you ever seen Road to Wellville? There is probably something useful as far as keeping people a little more limber but by the same token, someone a little less limber could have a hard time with a squat toilet. As for putting a shelf over your toilet, that’s just silly. If you have an OCD problem with your butt touching the seat, maybe this is a solution, but it sounds like a really good way to take a nasty spill.

    JD, using a bidet isn’t counter productive. The idea is it uses less water than making the toilet paper and flushing the toilet paper would, and everything I’ve heard about them indicates they get you cleaner with less irritation. I’m not sure I’m hard core enough for a dry toilet, but a double flush with a built in bidet sounds like an upgrade from what I have, especially if I can power the blow dryer with solar power.

  11. says

    To the various comment who dismiss the article as bogus:

    Nobody seems to have taken to time actually refute any of the arguments put forward by the various experts on colon health or the other topics addressed in the article.

    Justin

  12. Derek says

    You don’t have to remove your pants to use a squatting toilet without making a mess. Stand with your feet on both sides of the basin, pull your pants down to the tops of your knees (not to your ankles, otherwise the seat of your pants will be in the line of fire) and then do your thing. Guys, push your dangly bits through your lap and make sure they’re pointing down.

  13. mike says

    Why are looking for better ways of pissing and shitting in our water? Clean, unpolluted water is becoming a scarcity, and now, due to all the medications, birth control hormones, and plastics residues we piss out, our sewage is altering reproductive organs of animals all over the world.

    Composting our manure is the solution. Who cares about your home’s resell value? F*ck all that. Your house’s resell value is already going the toilet.

  14. Oliver says

    So does anyone know whether squatting toilets are (or can be) accessible? Or in public situations in countries where these are commonly in use, where toilets accessible to i.e. those in wheelchairs are required, are these usable or do they have to use another type for that situation?

    Thanks for this post.

  15. Nate says

    JD> I can’t think of a messier or more unsanitary way to clean up.

    I can – smearing it around with paper.

    When your hands are dirty you prefer washing to wiping. Why would it be any different down there?

  16. Nate says

    >You don’t have to remove your pants to use a squatting toilet without making a mess…

    Great tip!

    I grew up in a Western culture, but all my life I’ve squatted on the toilet seat. Somehow I habituated that (probably childhood fear of the ‘potty moster’ or something), and I’ve never had a problem. It really is a lot easier to eliminate, especially during GI distress. Forgive my graphicness, but when it’s not solid enough to “push against,” I find that squatting reduces the strain considerably.

  17. Nicole says

    I’ve only used a squat toilet during a visit to Thailand, but it felt different enough that the idea it benefits the colon seems entirely plausible to me. I wonder, though, what accommodations are made for handicapped access and the elderly. I don’t think it would always be easy for them to stand up from that position, unless you’ve been doing it all your life.

    I also used a composting toilet facility in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, and that was a beautiful experience. Not only are you in an unspoiled park, but the composting toilet was given interesting architecture and was pervaded with the smell of fresh wood.

  18. Aaron says

    When my hands are dirty, I am not happy either with only wiping them nor with only holding them still under a water spray for a moment.

    We wash our hands vigorously and thoroughly and use each hand to rub clean the other, and we use some sort of soap substance.

    For sanitary cleaning for our rears, it should be comparable. We would need some sort of wiping around of soapy water and then drying. I doubt there is any way to do that efficiently without just using our bare hands or without compromising sanitary conditions.
    Using toilet paper is not merely “smearing it around”.

    Now, I see that JD’s post was thoughtlessly arrogant by just claiming things to be bogus or unsanitary without any further explanation. I’m just trying to clarify the issues I find with the later points.

  19. says

    The other Aaron’s point (comment above) is well taken that we use water and soap to wash our hands, not simply a brief water spray or paper.

    But if I were given an either/or choice, I’d rather use a concentrated high pressure jet of water as opposed to just paper. Indeed, I’ve been in plenty of bathrooms while traveling where there was no soap and the only hand-washing option was plain water. (I trust that some germs are washed away that way, but I also carry alcohol wipes and sometimes alcohol gel for extra sanitation, just in case.)

    I haven’t used a squat toilet for anything more than urinating (in which case squatting is unnecessary for a guy and it’s just like using a full length urinal), but I have used regular toilets and ‘washlets’ with built in washing action. All I can say is that after using a washlet, I feel much cleaner than after using paper. Also, the paper that I use to dry myself after using the washlet seems relatively clean, indicating that the washlet has done a pretty good job on its own.

    Now it’s true that neither paper nor washlet does as good a job as soapy water, but until we get into a shower or bath at the end of the day, I’ll take the washlet over plain old paper anytime.

    And I bet that one roll of toilet paper will last for weeks if not a month when used in conjunction with a washlet-equipped toilet. Now that’s efficient.

    By the way, isn’t it interesting that this post has gotten more comments than pretty much any other MetaEfficient post that I’ve seen! Who knew so many people were interested in discussing their likes/dislikes in efficient waste elimination! :)

    – Aaron Dalton, 1GreenProduct.com

  20. Aaron says

    Why can’t they make a bidet that uses soapy and then clean water? Or maybe they already do, but nobody mentioned it?

    The annoying thing about this whole situation is that nobody has shared an example of the combination of everything: a composting squat-toilet with bidet… When those are available for under $1000, I’ll get one!

  21. Justin says

    To Aaron Dalton: Nice assessment of the merits of water cleaning.

    To other Aaron: I’d also really like to see a composting squat-toilet with a bidet. This would be the most optimal toilet, in my opinion.

  22. Chris says

    I recently went to Japan, and every hotel room had a bidet seat. The first time was scary because I didn’t know what to expect, but it left me very clean! You don’t need any soap. The sprayer has an adjustable pressure knob so you can just power blast all the stuff off if you need to. There were never any driers built into the toilets I used, so a couple pieces of paper were plenty to dry the area. After drying, there was no brown left on the paper (yes, I looked). It just left me with that “fresh out of the shower” feeling. Sometimes I’ll have to use the bathroom right after showering, and it feels like a waste. This solved that problem. You also don’t have to worry about “dingleberries” stuck on your butthairs all day.

    Most toilets there also solved the problem of using clean water to flush. The showers and sinks reclaimed the water into a holding tank to flush the toilet with. There were a couple that didn’t have that, so instead the tank part of the toilet (where there is normally just a lid) had a little faucet and drain on the top. When the toilet is flushed, the water comes out of the faucet for you to wash your hands. The drain just goes straight into the tank to get ready for the next flush.

    While I was there I only saw one squat toilet. It was in the restroom of the airport while I was waiting for my departing flight. I passed by the normal toilets just so I could try it out. Nothing special there. You just pull down your pants to your knees, squat, and release. There was less pushing, but it would take some getting used to – more than one session, at least. The hardest part was just trying to figure out the correct way to get started while keeping everything out of the way. After that it was easy.

  23. Beege says

    After having spent some time in Japan with some beautiful, clean squat toilets, as well as in some developing countries with less than….. ah…… pristine squatting toilets, I have to give the squatters a big thumbs up.

    Sorry to be so graphic, but here are some observations: When you squat, your cheeks are more open, so there is less contact with the feces, resulting in less mess to clean off of your person. Because of the nature of the toilets, I have never experienced “blowback splash”. It is a much cleaner facility in public, because no part of you is in contact with the toilet.

    One other often missed point is the time saved. On a regular toilet, I am at least a “two sections of the newspaper” kind of guy. I spent so long “reading” in the bathroom that my ex’s have either been amused or annoyed. With a squatter, it is a matter of a few seconds. Really! That in itself tends to give the cancer claims a bit more credibility, at least in my mind.

    As Derek pointed out earlier, squatters can (with some practice) be used without removing the pants. HOWEVER, I would remove them anyway if you are at home, at least until you have become a moderately advanced squatter. A good way to gauge your “squatting ability” is to take a stance with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width, and squat. If you can do so without grabbing a support, you’ve got my first attempts beat! If you tend to come up on the balls of your feet, even a little, it is pants off time. If you can remain flat-footed through the whole exercise, you are ready for prime time squatting!

  24. says

    If a composting toilet isn’t your thing but you are serious about saving water, want a toilet that works and is affordable, I would highly recommend installing a Dual Flush toilet. Caroma toilets offer a patented dual flush technology consisting of a 0.8 Gal flush for liquid waste and a 1.6 Gal flush for solids. Caroma, an Australian company set the standard by giving the world its first successful two button dual flush system in the 80’s and has since perfected the technology. Also, with a full 3.5″ trapway, these toilets virtually never clog. All of Caroma’s toilets are on the list of WaterSense labeled HET’s http://www.epa.gov/watersense/pp/find_het.htm and also qualify for several toilet rebate programs available in the US. Please visit my blog http://pottygirl.wordpress.com/ to learn more or go to http://www.caromausa.com to learn where you can find Caroma toilets locally. Visit http://www.ecotransitions.com/howto.asp to see how we flush potatoes with 0.8 gallons of water, meant for liquids only. Best regards, Andrea Paulinelli

  25. Aaron says

    As I said, I have a dual-flush toilet. Caroma may have patents, but it is certainly not on the dual-flush concept. Caroma seems great, but we are THRILLED with our Sterling Rockton “Dual Force” toilet. It is excellently designed, relatively low, very powerful, has the same 0.8 / 1.6 as mentioned about Caroma (actually, the majority of my solid evacuations are dealt with effectively with only the 0.8, I use the 1.6 only with pretty major evacuations).
    http://sterlingplumbing.com/whysterling/toilets.strl

    We special ordered ours through the local Lowe’s (they carry Sterling but didn’t stock this toilet). It took a few weeks, and we paid the list price (under $300).

  26. says

    So glad to see all this discussion on sanitartion, squatting proposals and conserving water. Beyond toilets, my husband likes to use the non-water using waterless urinals where he can. Actually wants to install one for our boys in the house too. Why use fresh water when urine simply goes by itself in the drain line. I think their website is http://www.waterless.com Have a little girl on the way and will report on the differences between the boys and the girls! :)

  27. Tootrertito says

    Nothing seems to be easier than seeing someone whom you can help but not helping.
    I suggest we start giving it a try. Give love to the ones that need it.
    God will appreciate it.

  28. says

    I agree; water is far better for cleaning than paper, and a much more responsible choice for the environment.
    Squat toilets are great too – if you are still flexible enough to use them.
    But composting toilets?
    Too much pee makes them stink – let alone any extra water used for washing the freckle!
    I get disgusted whenever I walk into a shopping center in Australia that has opted for latest “waterless urinals” in their toilet blocks. You will get prior warning of this due to the pungent urine odor the minute you open the toilet block door.
    Ah, the environmental irony – bidets or composting toilets; but you cannot have both!
    Let’s get this in perspective: what would you do with the compost produced by the 10 million odd composting toilets of a major city?
    Sewage systems were invented by the Roman civilization long ago for very good reason; they are simply the most efficient means of disposing of large amounts of human waste wherever water is readily available.
    And really; what would you be doing building a major city where there isn’t an adequate water supply anyhow?

  29. Tony Edwards says

    You can economicaly create a dry toilet useing a dustbin shaped laundry basket (underseal the vented lid) in which is kept a plastic container with a lid(nappy bucket will do)..I use a coal bucket,stronger, this sits on top of dry sawdust used to cover your offerings . The ‘nappy bucket’ will fit inside the conventional toilet pan,user squatting on the rim . The free sawdust I use is walnut all the sawmill is offering at present! …they usually have oak …the walnut smells more aromatic. The full bucket is emptied into the compost bins in the garden, layered with cuttings /weeds…no smell…enormous earthworm population results. I have been useing this system for years,the bathroom and garden is free from unpleasant smells.I guess pine sawdust would be the best for compost making,though my garden and green roofs are thriveing on my hardwood based system.

  30. Al says

    i live in Mindanao island of Philippines. The native people here, after THOUSANDS OF YEARS of cleaning their bottoms with poorly aimed splashed water and a left hand, are slowly getting into the t.paper habit. IT IS MORE SANITARY to start the job with paper. You wouldn’t dream of cleaning your teeth without a brush! One needs to move on to a second stage of wet wipes. In fact, I myself use a third stage of wiping with 40% alchohol-wetted paper.

    The ancients didn’t avoid paper because it’s cleaner. They avoided it because they were too dirt poor to HAVE paper, much less properly made absorbant paper.

    Living and working (Do you think the natives can export cacao by themselves?!?) in the Third World as I do, i’m quite tired of hearing people in Bezerkely or wherever, talk about how lovely tribal life is. It is nasty, short, and brutish.

  31. LC says

    I am new to the practice of squatting. After considering the option of feet firmly on the floor or precariously balancing on the toilet seat, I thought about a solution that doesn’t tear up my bathroom prior to putting the house on the market and believe that a small bed pan on the floor would be a good solution, kind of like an adult potty, which, even though I can claim some great benefits of continuing to squat, why do I feel like I am an adult that has gone potty?! Now I need to find out how to make a small, foldaway one that I can take when I travel…. Hmmm… Where did I put that Origami book?

  32. Ella says

    I dislike the design of modern toilets because the pans are too shallow with almost horizontal sides, with a small outlet at the bottom and about 3 inch of water, therefore waste does not fall into the water but on the sides of the pan, which means cleaning the toilet every timeit is used using a brush, more cleaner and more flushing, where is the water saving in that!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>