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July 21, 2016

Evolution of Our Solutions: Journey of the Waterless Urinal

In the past two years, sanitation in India is probably the most written about topic at this time of the year and yet year after year the attention doesn’t seem to yield many results. In many ways India’s dismal sanitation situation is a stark reminder of the lopsided nature of India’s growth story complete with its flashy facades and broken bowels. We recently wrote about how construction figures are not enough when assessing sanitation facilities in schools <>. Today we talk about our experiments with sanitation. At Reap Benefit we use an action oriented approach to address complex social problems. We trust our prototypes and users and dive right into the deep end with our solutions.

The state of Public Toilets in our country is pitiable and most of us would rather not even use them, preferring instead to hold it in. A public space which deters the entry of people rather than inviting them, defeats its purpose. A matter of serious concern in the area of sanitation is the stench of urine which persists in many schools and public urinals. A lot of people insist on using an open space even when there is a toilet in close proximity. Observations such as these, as well as instances visible in many government aided schools where students preferred to use every other available space for urinating save the toilet, prompted us to find a solution to this particular problem.

The journey of the Waterless Urinals began just as most Reap Benefit stories do, and that is with the question, ‘Why?’. Why were students urinating outside the toilet rather than inside the toilet? Why did the toilets smell so much? What was responsible for the smell? Questions were plenty and soon we began investigating in to the matter. Through this endeavour we wanted to not only eradicate or reduce the foul smell of urine, but to also bring about instinctive behavioural changes in the habits of people in relation to sanitation in particular.

The first step to the challenge was to discover exactly what caused the smell and how to combat it. A few lessons spent brushing up on science revealed a rather simple explanation for the cause of smell in toilets. Urine contains ammonia and after flushing, uric acid is released and it is the mixture of this uric acid with air which is responsible for that stench lingering in the toilet long after one has finished his/her business. The solution to minimize and eradicate smell is actually really simple, all one has to do is flush properly and make sure the water flushes out every trace of urine. However, this solution is not the simplest for a country like ours, where accessibility to water and water shortages is a daily nightmare for so many. Hence, an alternative solution had to be found to cut off the smell which required minimal water.

At Reap Benefit, we work on core principles of ‘low cost and simple solutions’, our products are meant to be obtainable by everyone, using the most basic everyday materials and turning them in to innovations serving other purposes. We initially introduced plants in to the urinals, experimenting to see if the scent of the plants could overpower the stench of urine, this however proved unsuccessful for long term. Also, it was observed that most male toilets in Government schools had no urinals or pans to begin with, and students were not able to understand the difference of peeing on the side of a road or in a proper urinal, seeing as essentially for them both were just plain flat ground. We understood then, that urinals would also have to be designed to ensure a behavioural change and to clean up our streets better.

The second experiment we tried involved a 20litre Bisleri can and engine oil, materials what were cheap and accessible to everyone. The water can was upturned and a major portion of the top half was cut off, the mouth of the can was then fixed to pipes which were connected to the sewage line. Engine oil was then poured down the drain, and this was intended to block urine and air from mixing. Oil was observed to be a good solvent and deterrent, and fulfilled its purpose of reducing the smell, but although it was successful in combatting the smell, it was not seen to be a viable long term solution for numerous reasons. Firstly, it required a lot of maintenance with oil having to be poured every second day or so, and this just did not seem feasible; the lesser maintenance required the better. Secondly, it could cause a lot of clogging as remnants of it remained still, and it could potentially cause severe sewage problems. With potential setbacks such as these, a better model had to be developed.

It was back to the drawing board for team Reap Benefit, and with another of our principles in mind, ‘Fail fast and learn faster’, we persevered and worked on designing an innovation which met all the requirements. It was understood that to combat the smell, we needed to block the passage of air in to the pipes, and after experimenting with a few objects, it was something as simple as a table tennis ball which appeared to be the best option. The table tennis ball was placed at the mouth of the PVC pipe and this ensured a slower trickle of water down the drain and blocked air passageways. After many tries and experimentation, the tennis ball revealed itself to be the best option. However, before introducing the innovation to schools and the public, a change in design was also a requirement, seeing as the earlier version was kicked around as most urinals were placed outdoors. Using the Bisleri can still, we instead cut off a rectangle on one side of the upturned can, rather than the top half and mounted it on the wall. The new design was implemented in a few places and after observing it for some time, it was declared a success! In brief, it is an innovation which is simple and low cost, required less maintenance, and was not reliant on water to ensure it remain clean and sanitary.

It has been four years since the first implementation of our version of a waterless urinal, and while it has been challenging in many ways, it has also been a huge success. The urinals have been installed in several schools all around Karnataka, including Bengaluru and Hubli, and have drastically improved the sanitation and hygiene. The foul smell of urine has recorded to have been reduced, and even more importantly, it was observed that behavioural changes began to be instilled in students, with them understanding the importance and necessity of using the correct facilities, instead of just urinating anywhere. While these successes have been recorded on a large scale, it has not been without obstacles. Approaching schools and convincing them of the purpose and need of such an innovation, was one of the bigger challenges we faced, as well as the tennis balls being stolen, and nails rusting. And while the urinals serve their purpose, they however are not aesthetically pleasing, which brings us to the next step to improve the existing model.

The journey of the waterless urinal has been quite an experience, with most people finding it hard to digest. Nevertheless, chances were taken and the innovation has a success rate of 60%, with majority of the schools happy and pleased with how situations have improved. The year 2016 also saw the implementation of waterless urinals in a private school to already existing urinals. The table tennis balls were added here and the intention was to eradicate smell and moreover to cut down the usage of water. While the innovation began with the intention of improving sanitation, it is now also an important product for cutting down the use of water.

The Waterless Urinal has survived the test of time and weather conditions and has proved to be a durable product which delivers on its promises. The design has undergone through several transformations over the years, and while it requires a makeover still, that does not take from it the success stories it has brought out, and while hurdles may continue to cross our path, with this innovation we are confident enough about it, and the beneficial aspects it serves to ensure its further and future success.