First World Flush

Should the rest of the world play catch up with North America’s Toilet Habits?


We were on a crammed public bus that ferries weary passengers from the dilapidated Don Mueng Airport to the Bangkok Train Station, sandwiched beside a school girl and a panting business man sweltering in his suit. Here, Alexandre told me of his lay-over adventure, after enduring a 14 hour Montreal to Beijing flight. He was inside the clean washroom, and saw rows of empty cubicles. Delighted, he picked one, but saw that it wasn’t “normal-looking.” No matter, he just picked another one, and another one, until he gasped at the realization.

They’re all squat toilets.

I guffawed as the business man next to me politely smiled even if I was absolutely certain he had no idea what was so funny. I imagined the elevator scene from The Shining, but instead of an insane amount of blood, it would just be a lone, porcelain squat toilet. And for many people, it’ll be just as scary.

Like Alexandre, I hated the squat toilet. Two years ago, I was backpacking around China when in a moment of frustration I complained to my newly-found friend, a Nanjing- native named Camila, why ev1559585_410917272344732_708048290_nerything; thefreezing showers, the mystery meat dishes, the hard beds, and of course, the squat toilet, were so peculiar. She flippantly muttered, “Those are better for your health”. I realized right away, that I spoke in a disrespectful manner.

The toilet habits that were inoculated to me as a child, are only superior when viewed by my society and culture alone. Because I grew up in a middle class family, despite being in the steaming scullery of the world that is the South East Asian tropics, I was used to doing my business on a  familiar “western- style” sit down toilet. To say that I am lucky, is an understatement. We live in a world where 2.4 billion people don’t have access to a toilet, and are fraught with the unfortunate consequence of dying from preventable water borne diseases. In a 2003 study by the World Health Organization, they reported that a staggering 1.6 million people lost their lives due to unsafe water and sanitation. 90% of them, were children under the age of five.

In a book called the Optimistic Environmentalist, the author David Boyd discusses an interview that he once read about a very old American woman, who was born in the late 1800’s. They asked her, “what would she consider to be the greatest invention that she had witnessed?” Her answer was the flush toilet, because it had the most impact in her life. However, the flushing toilet has already existed as early as 1596, invented by an English nobleman by the name of Sir John Harrington. (Ellis, 1) And, after a long while, a man named Joseph Gayetty, created what would be the modern toilet paper in 1857. The prudent American public embraced the toilet paper gradually, until it eventually plateaued into the basic necessity that we prioritize today.


Should we expect the whole world to adopt the North American practice of proper sanitation? This remains as nothing more than a pipe dream, because to provide indoor plumbing for the whole world is simply too expensive. An inconclusive study by the BMC Public Health states, “pit latrines are in use by more than half the urban population in Sub-Saharan Africa and especially among low income earners. An additional 36 million people in urban areas of Sub-Saharan Africa have adopted the pit.” To contextualize this with an actual user’s perspective I asked Reiza Dejito, of Handicap International France, an expatriate NGO worker who moves around the areas of Central and Eastern Africa, and is now currently based in Djouba, South Sudan. She says,

“in urban areas, Kenyans adopted the use of flush toilets and toilet papers– these comforts however are reserved for the middle class. Lower class folks use pit latrines, and rural dwellers often have communal latrines, while pastoral communities still practice open defecation.”

I fished Reiza for details, and asked whether she finds the latrine system better than the usual flush toilets that she grew up with. She says, “it is not any better at all, you have to squat, and it needs getting used to.”

In a complete reversal of Reiza’s situation, I interviewed another friend, Selvakumar Thiruthaniyanathan. He has lived in Montreal for 6 years, after emigrating from his bucolic town of Jaffna, in Sri Lanka. Selva finds that his country’s sanitation habits are much better. He says,

“toilets must be built 10 metres away from the house, with a well-ventilated cement grill on four sides of the wall. The septic tank should be 5 metres deep below ground and only the bottom part can contact the land. ”

He verbosely stated that these rigorous set of rules are mandated by the government, and these outdoor toilets are prevalent in his culture- he says only the big city hotels, would have a “western-style toilet.” Selva maintains that he finds it unhygienic to have toilets inside the house, and adds, despite the fact that Sri Lanka was a former British colony, they don’t use commodes, preferring instead, a squat toilet. He quotes the popular adage that many people in China and the Middle East have repeated, that “squat toilets reduces the risk of colon cancer.” However, further research disputes this, there is a scientific study that could not find a higher risk of colo-rectal cancer with using a sit down toilet, even if they agree that squat toilets provide more rectal comfort and it empties the bowel in a much more efficient manner. Notwithstanding its purported anti-cancer properties, squat toilets are at least a great way to build up one’s hamstrings.


There are a lot of strides to be taken before one can consider the pit latrines of Sub-Saharan Africa, and the squat toilets of Asia as perfect. Is it because they need to measure up to North American- or “western” plumbing practices? No, because even if our sanitation system seems desirable to most of the world, it is still far from ideal. In the article, Not a square to spare the author attested that “in 2012 the pulp industry will be expanding production by over 25 million tons, fed by monoculture plantations established in Australia, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, and Uruguay, primarily to feed the market demand for virgin toilet paper in North America and Europe.” Most North Americans are reluctant to replace their preferred toilet paper brands for recycled variants. This choice comes at a great price, since Greenpeace claims that as much as 22 percent of Kimberly Clark’s pulp come from producers who procure their wood from Canadian boreal forests where some trees are 200 years old. Another source corroborates this claim, and adds this jarring detail, “Canada’s old growth and intact forests are logged at a rate of five acres a minute, 24 hours a day.” The author also stated how worldwide, we lose 13 million hectares of forests, every year. Unless we can create a shift from our current toilet paper paradigm, we will continue to flush 27,000 trees down to sewers and landfills per day.

Professor Geoffrey Pearce inside his office at Dawson College

I interviewed Geoffrey Pearce, the current department head of the Geography department at Dawson College. He says that toilet paper is essentially a clean paper product. To produce it, trees are cut. But, a tree does a lot more things than be toilet paper. It provides oxygen for us to breathe, and it is an integral part of our ecosystem. A tree, basically, allows us to live. Professor Pearce is my teacher for a class called Environmental Issues, in it he repeatedly says, “one must always think about the unintended consequences of our actions.”

I can easily align his sentiment with the way I flush my toilet, multiple times a day. Sadly, not a lot of people will do the same, and one of the reasons is simply because defecating is not a pleasant subject matter.

Maybe it’s due to the Asian Pragmatism in me. After all, it is decidedly one’s culture, that would create the most impact in our toilet habits.

Malaysia, one of the many wealthy countries that eschewed the use of toilet paper in favor of bidet sprays.

Ada is one of the 13 million inhabitants of Tokyo, the largest city in the world. The cultures and values in Japan is different, she says, people pay particular attention to cleanliness. Sanitation maintenance workers are accorded the respect they deserve. Japanese children are trained at a young age to keep their surroundings tidy and neat. Their mentality that is geared towards modernity translates in how they successfully tried to innovate the way people managed their waste.

In reality, most people would never have to re-invent the way they used the toilet. I did it to a certain extent when I immigrated to Canada- a much welcomed lifestyle change. Even if we did keep a bidet in our home as a small rebellion to this toilet paper nation. Alexandre, who only had to be coerced by his well- meaning girlfriend, was in time able to wield the bidet he calls a bum gun, with the precision of a sniper.


The final question I asked from everyone I interviewed, is “why do they think that people will always be reluctant to change their toilet habits?” Despite their varying cultures, language, and geography, each of them had the same response. Professor Geoffrey Pearce, succinctly stated their collective thought with,“because it’s psychologically traumatizing, to completely re-configure the way we think about poop.”

America was once all about the outhouse, and for it they were plagued with dysentery. Now, many of these bowel related diseases, especially hemorrhoids, are just a sordid comedian’s punchline. An occasional nuisance, instead of being a constant part of life. Most of the developing world can only dream of experiencing the convenience of a modern sanitation facility. But this North American system comes at a heavy cost to nature, and most people don’t even realize it. Would first world countries find a way to flush their toilets differently? Maybe, since in any case, there will always be a possibility for progress. Although it has to start with being curious and open about how the rest of the world does their washroom business.

3 Replies to “First World Flush”

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