Public access to toilets is a major issue for homeless people in Canada's cities, one for which various solutions have been attempted: Vancouver has introduced self-cleaning toilets to its downtown areas, which are free of charge and open to the public 24 hours a day. Toronto started a similar project last year, and though you need to pay 25 cents to use that city's first self-cleaning toilet, the municipal government said it would distribute tokens to homeless people.
But while these efforts mark an attempt to address some basic needs, they face one significant limitation: There aren't very many of them.
Public toilets are very expensive, due mostly to the costs of connecting them to the sewage system and installing the necessary plumbing. That's why Canadian municipalities may want to look south to consider an approach being attempted in California.
In the San Francisco neighbourhood of the Tenderloin, which has a high homeless population, the city is contemplating the installation of small, composting public toilets, quaintly known as "pooplets". The chief benefit is the lower costs that derive from not having to connect to the sewer system, which means that more toilets can be placed in areas that are currently underserved.
(The Tenderloin would certainly count in this regard: Dina Hilliard of the North of Market-Tenderloin Community Benefit District told The New York Times that there were nearly 10,000 documented "incidents of human waste" last year in the neighbourhood, due to the number of homeless people.)
A prototype pooplet, designed by Oakland's Hyphae Design Laboratory, could be in place by next summer. Aside from costs, the other benefit to the toilets is a reduced smell, and less water used.
Would such a project actually solve the lack of toilet access facing homeless people in North American cities? In itself, a composting toilet might not do the trick: Current designs require more work from users than simply flushing, which means the central problem of public toilets - that they get really messy and unpleasant really quickly - won't go away. But reducing the costs could also mean that more toilets can be installed in more places, which would go a long way to improving access.
If the idea of using a toilet that won't flush seems strange to you, take a look at this (thankfully non-demonstrative) instructional video from City Farmer in Vancouver:
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