This story is over 5 years old.

Happy World Toilet Day: Shooting the Shit with Jack Sim, Head of the Other WTO

In the last century, the world's population has grown from under two billion to now around seven billion. That's a lot of new poopers and pee-rs to deal with. It's a problem worsened by the fact that most population growth in recent years, and into the...
November 18, 2011, 4:36pm

In the last century, the world's population has grown from under two billion to now around seven billion. That's a lot of new poopers and pee-rs to deal with. It's a problem worsened by the fact that most population growth in recent years, and into the future, is coming from developing nations where sanitation and sewage management isn't necessarily a priority. It's estimated that about 40 percent of the world's population doesn't have access to proper sanitation infrastructure. In our modern world, toilets are still lacking.

Enter the World Toilet Organization. Founded by Singapore native Jack Sim, aka The Toilet Man, in 2000, the WTO — not to be confused with the World Trade Organization — was started to act as a global sanitation advocate in response to the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals. Since then, the WTO has used literal toilet humor as a means of loosening up politicians and the press that would normally shy away from sanitation issues. To cap off its celebration of all things toilet, the WTO celebrates World Toilet Day every November 19 as a way to really get people thinking about where their poop goes. Sanitation is one of the biggest health problems the world currently faces, yet the WTO is the only highly-visible global body dedicated to promoting access to clean facilities. It's perhaps the most admirable shit job that ever existed.

With the festivities of World Toilet Day looming, I called Sim in Singapore, from the comfort of my first world toilet, to chat about the WTO's history, world fertilizer shortages and why American public toilets are so crappy.

First, what is the World Toilet Organization?

We are a world body advocating the subject of toilets and sanitation and this includes everybody's toilets, yeah? Including the city ones to the public toilets to the poverty people who have no toilets and to every aspect of it. That means the cleaning, the design, the disposal, the pollution issues, the livelihood, poverty elevation. The whole works of what is related to the toilet [itself] and obviously if we have anything in the world that is not related [specifically] to the toilet.

Like what?

Like anything. Architecture, the product design, material science, there's toilet marketing, there's toilets in our philanthropy, government policies. There's a lot of things that we miss when we don't even discuss the subject, because we treat it as quirky [or] taboo. The World Toilet Organization started in 2001—We saw that people are embarrassed to talk about toilets. So we turned the subject from an uncomfortable one into a media darling by making it funny. And with humor we break the ice and get people to start talking, and we keep creating humor. Especially our name, it is the WTO—World Toilet Organization—we play with the pun on the World Trade Organization.

Why did you start the WTO?

Because nobody will handle this subject on a global scale. There's a lot of toilet NGOs working very hard in their locations but they are not listened to because they're a lower body. It's also very difficult for small NGOs to replicate and fund the programs that they make. We are a global voice so that they can speak louder in their local contexts. And when the media support came to legitimize the subject, then the politicians also get interested because they also want to appear in the media. Then the other aspects, like the academia—they have done research and [have] nowhere to publish so they come to the summit each year. We host a [yearly] summit in a different city. This year it is in Hainan Island in China. Last year it was in Philadelphia, and it also went to Moscow, Belfast, Shanghai, Beijing, Bangkok, New Delhi and all these places.

One of Sim's lectures on getting support for free. When's the last time someone told you to put roses in your toilet on Valentine's Day? He's a master of delivering information with a large dose of pee-pee humor.

So for you, it's about getting politicians and the world to focus on sanitation, right? This is a health issue?

[The politicians] understand, but they need incentives to address it, because they have lots of agendas. [Whatever] makes them visible, popular, makes them look like they are doing something good, they will address it, and before that they just don't want to take their picture next to toilets because that might even spoil their image. So by making the news, by making the media really support sanitation, it gives the politicians incentive to want to take a photograph next to a toilet, want to support sanitation and speak up.

[Impoverished] people are also not demanding to have toilets. They have the bush, they go do open defecation, and they live under that condition until they are numb. They are wired in their mind to say a toilet is not what we need. And toilets and sanitation were banded together with water, under what is called WatSan, but when [we] put these two together all the attention went to water. So we decoupled them and now people are paying attention to the two agendas separately. That is how sanitation [is getting] attention again.

Sanitation has had a big impact on the world. I mean, we have seven billion people living on the planet now. Do you think we have so many people because of the toilet?

Yeah, we have 7 billion people and 40 percent of them don't have toilets. That's really ridiculous. We are now a modern society, we send people to the moon, and we have people who don't have toilets. And the strange thing is that the people who don't have toilets, many of them own cell phones. So a market solution can be found, because these people have some money. Obviously they have some money, they bought cell phones. So the priority of health and hygiene has to be moved up, so we created the Sani Shop, a micro franchise to teach the poor to produce proper sanitation.

The WTO's first Sani Shop initiative was in Cambodia. Now they've partnered with Unilever for a Toilet Academy.

Interesting. Is that common, that people have cell phones but not toilets?

Yeah. It's getting worse and worse. Or I would say more and more frequent. For example, take a small country like Cambodia where there are 17 million people and there are nine million phones and [yet sanitation only covers] 23 percent of the population. That's what, four and a half million [people]? So more people have cell phones there than toilets.

Wow. I did not know that. So is bringing awareness part of the goal of World Toilet Day?

Yes. World Toilet Day is the founding day of the World Toilet Organization, on 19 November every year. It started in 2001 with the inaugural toilet summit, and with every year people are celebrating World Toilet Day more and more and more. We are now tweeting, we are now going on Facebook and getting everybody to work on it. It's a day of free expression and [people] are coming to talk about World Toilet Day more and more. Last year, World Toilet Day on Twitter trended fifth position, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows premiered that day so we're not too bad because we spent zero cents.

Do you think toilets are more important than Harry Potter?

Well, I think it's almost [a tie] and both are about pots, so it's okay, right?

Yeah, okay. I have a more personal question, what's your favorite toilet experience? Or what's your favorite toilet in the world?

Favorite toilet? Well, to me it's about gimmicks, you know? It is about having no smell, it's safe, there's privacy and you can be sure that other supplies are there—there's paper, there's soap. Ergonomically, you can work without messing up—for example, the water is here, the soap is next to it, and hand drying is next to it and you don't have to move around too much.

In terms of privacy, I just want to say that in America, the toilet cubicle has no privacy. First of all, you can see everybody's underwear color right? If you look, the cubicles are so high that, the gap is so high that you can actually see those guys' underwear sitting on the pot right?

Oh, because it doesn't go to the floor, the walls don't go all the way to the floor.

Yeah, you [should] go down to, let's say six inches, but [American] ones are really really too high, and there's no privacy. And the other thing about the American cubicle very often is on the door, the two gaps, you can actually kind of see the person sitting there inside. It's not very good private setting. I hope that they change those designs. Because nowhere in the world will people accept this kind of design except in America.

These are the facilities from an Indian school the WTO visited in 2009.

Why do you think only Americans have that kind of design?

I don't know. All kinds of answers. I think that somebody designed it, and then for a very long time nobody changed it and it just stayed that way. Today, [after] we ask this question, maybe another person will say "That's true. I'm going to change that, I'm going to supply new norms and change it."

You know, toilets themselves haven't changed very much in recent years. Why haven't they changed in awhile?

First of all, just on the last question, we have actually published with the International Code Council in America a practical guideline for public toilet design. Public restroom design. So that privacy issue is also addressed in that guideline. We have also influenced a lot of countries to change the potty parenting rules so that the [number of] ladies queuing up [to change diapers, etc.] will be reduced by provisioning more cubicles in the ladies' room to compensate for the extra urinals that the guys have. That way, when the boys and the girls go in together they can come out together, and the boys don't have to wait for the girls because there's not a long queue in the ladies line. Ladies use a little more time, so, we use all these calculations.

On your last question about the design of the toilet not changing, I think it's time to change. With seven billion people, if everybody's going to use a flush toilet, the amount [of water used] would be humungous, and it makes no sense today. If you think about it, we are flushing drinking water down the toilet. And yet, the urine and the poop is very good fertilizer and we don't capture it, we're just throwing it away.

So, the poop is only 200 grams, we add six liters of water to it, transport it over 50 kilometers or so, and try to separate the water and the feces again. I mean it's a little bit insane, isn't it? You'd think, to put something together just to separate them later—it's a very costly thing but because it's already [standard], it doesn't change anymore. These are the problems. I hope maybe NASA can come up with a small surface, smooth enough so that the shit will just slide and we have a sliding toilet instead of a flushing one.

And here's the product of a 2008 WTO sanitation workshop. Better, no?

Interesting. So do you think that's the future? Like a super slippery toilet?

Yeah. We also have to recycle urine back into the soil as fertilizer. There's already technology that converts it into what we call struvite, which is urine powder. This is great stuff, you know? So what I think is that we cannot continue to go through the phosphorus rock mine and just keep on digging the mines and get the phosphorus to convert it into fertilizer. We have to use it for—use our urine—for fertilizer because rock mines will soon deplete. Like fossil fuels, you don't have unlimited supplies. Somebody calculated that there are only 30, 40 years left of phosphorus and we're now at peak phosphorus. And the decline comes down, and yeah. What happens if we don't have phosphorus? What happens if we don't have fertilizer? The food prices will shoot up. It's already happened, and phosphorus prices have already shot up—[there's been a] 300% increase in prices, eventually you can't even find [fertilizers]. So it's important for famine.

What you're saying is that if we don't change our toilets to try to recycle or put all of our waste back to use, we're going to run out of fertilizers.

And we'll have food shortages.

If I could sum this up then, if we don't make better toilets and don't change our toilets then the whole world is going to run out of food?

I think we won't run out of food but we will have a heavy shortage of food because the source of fertilizer is not there, right?

That is fascinating. I've never heard that before, but that's…

The human being is actually a natural fertilizing machine. He wants to squat in the forest, and then he poops all this fertilizer, and [the forest] continues to grow and then the trees bring animals, and he eats the animals, he collects mushrooms, he plants something and that's what we do, right? The natural thing. But now we're throwing it away so we're breaking the eco-cycle.

Yeah. It's like brown gold in there.

Brown gold yes.

Have you ever gone and pooped in the woods?

In the woods, it's okay. I think it is not okay if you have people living nearby because flies will go there. Of course if you poop in the woods, you should also cover it with leaves, yeah?

Have you ever done that though?

Of course. I was born a poor person in Singapore in 1957, and Singapore was poorer than Cambodia at that time, so of course we do that. We have intestinal worms, we have cholera outbreaks, we have people dying, children dying, we're seeing exactly what is happening right now, yeah?

So we have to figure out a way to put all that poop to use but do it in a way that is sanitary right? That's what you're going for.