To Flush or Not to Flush: Change in Taiwan’s Bathroom Etiquette

To Flush or Not to Flush: Change in Taiwan’s Bathroom Etiquette
Why you need to know

Is Taiwan ready to change its toilet habits?

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Many newcomers to Taiwan are puzzled to find the nation’s bathrooms stocked with one extra piece of equipment: a small trash bin that can be found next to nearly every toilet throughout the country. This puzzlement oftentimes turns into shock when these newcomers are told what that trash can is for. They will soon learn, either from their new landlord or a hastily scrawled sign posted on the wall of a public restroom, that they are under no circumstances to dump their toilet paper into the toilet, but are instead to dispose of it in this very trash bin.

If they take the time to ask, they will quickly be informed that Taiwan’s plumbing just cannot take the added strain of toilet paper flushed down the toilet. Their life will now include the extra chore of cleaning out this bin at regular intervals, bundling up the now befouled toilet paper, and marching off this little parcel to the garbage truck to toss it in along with all the other un-recyclables. It is a system that ensures residents will be intimately involved in the disposal of their own waste, or, when out and about and in need of a public restroom, will have many encounters with the waste recently left behind by others.

Beyond the purely aesthetic objections one may raise, the system also creates some obvious sanitation problems as well, with everyone from residents to garbage collectors to the operators of Taiwan’s incinerators exposed to increased risk of infection.

So it came as welcome relief to many last December when Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Minister Lee Ying-yuan (李應元) announced that the agency will begin a campaign to encourage Taiwan’s residents to boot the bins and commit fully to flushing.

He made the comments during a legislative hearing in response to a question from KMT Legislator Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕), who asked why Taiwan remains one of the only countries in the world still unable to flush toilet paper. Perhaps Lu was simply looking to embarrass the new administration’s sanitation policies, but Lee was quick to agree with the criticism, and right then and there pledged to launch a pro-flushing campaign within three months.

Welcome news yes, but also somewhat confusing news. The warnings about the dangers of flushing have been delivered not only by stern-faced landlords, but up until this recent episode in the Legislative Yuan also by the EPA itself. In fact, when in 2008 the Tainan government made a similar push calling on its residents to flush their toilet paper, the national environmental body immediately overruled the local authority and informed residents in no uncertain terms that the bin would be there to stay.

So what has changed in the intervening eight years?

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REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dals
Why flushing sucks

“We do have a lot of old buildings in Taipei; some of those buildings were even built up during the Japanese occupation period,” says Dr. Jason Ni of City University of Hong Kong who specializes in urban planning. “Because of the structure of the water pipeline, it will cause a problem with the water pressure.” In addition he adds “pipelines are very fragile, and also very old. So if you dump toilet paper in there it could damage the system.”

More importantly, he says many of these old buildings are not connected to a central sewage system. In fact, according to recent statistics from the Ministry of the Interior, only a little over half of Taiwan’s population is linked to sewage treatment facilities. The relatively developed northern municipal centers of Taipei and New Taipei City have managed to connect around 80 percent of the population. However the situation looks much worse further south with only about 60 percent in Kaohsiung connected and just over 11 percent in Taitung.

Dr. Ni holds the opinion that until these problems are addressed, the EPA’s new program just cannot be applied to a huge number of households in Taiwan. “Technically, it’s not feasible for all the buildings to just flush in, that’s the truth. I think this is more about a political show.”

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Softening up

Had Dr. Ni made these criticisms only a few years ago, his statements would have been almost indistinguishable from the anti-flush public pronouncements of the EPA.

However, according to the EPA’s Kuo-Su Chiu (邱國書), one crucial bit of waste management technology has seen dramatic improvements in the past few years: Taiwan’s toilet paper. “In the past, the toilet paper wasn’t as good as it is today,” says Chiu, who is the Senior Technical Specialist at the EPA’s Department of Environmental Sanitation and Toxic Substance Management. “Today, the toilet paper dissolves much more easily.”

It turns out that an awful lot hinges on the dissolvability of the toilet paper. In 2011 the EPA went so far as to release a report warning against widespread flushing after it found that the top five brands of toilet paper on the market had poor dissolvability and could cause problems for homes that are not connected to the main sewage system and still rely on septic tanks to dispose of waste.

Chiu says though that today the toilet paper now on the market breaks apart easily in water. He took it upon himself to conduct his own informal experiments, and says after dunking the paper in water and stirring it around only a few times it dissolved completely. “You cannot even see it. It is as though you stirred in flour,” he says.

The key point being that toilet paper that breaks down so completely will not add any extra strain to the plumbing. “If, when you use the bathroom, the toilet doesn’t block up under normal circumstances, then adding in toilet paper will not make a difference.”

For those homes that do experience frequent blockages, he argues that the blame cannot be put on the toilet paper. “It’s possible the pipes don’t meet some standard. If it’s not working, that’s probably a separate issue.”

Chiu’s answer conveniently sidesteps the question of the quality of Taiwan’s pipes and sewer system, although he acknowledges the system’s deficiencies and says government authorities are planning to work with property owners to make upgrades wherever possible.

A habit hard to break?

If Chiu is right and technology is no major obstacle, there still remains the separate question of culture and habit. “Before Taiwan was an agricultural society, so we’ve always had the habit of throwing the toilet paper in the trash can, and it’s just continued,” he says. “Today though, Taiwan’s people have had more opportunities to travel and see how the rest of the world lives.”

Regardless of any official pronouncement, Chiu expects a minority will simply carry on the habit of binning and bundling. To counter this, the EPA is encouraging local authorities to remove bins from the stalls in men’s public toilets entirely. No bin, no problem. For women’s restrooms the bins will remain for the disposal of sanitary products, but they will be smaller and will get a lid added on top. A sea change for Taiwan’s bathrooms.

But how widespread will the resistance to the new bathroom order be? If the results of an extremely informal survey conducted by The News Lens is any indication, this is going to be a fairly easy sell.

The vast majority of local respondents seem to be as disgusted by the bins as many newcomers to Taiwan. Most see the whole process as an unwelcome chore, one which a few said they avoided whenever possible. “From the time I was a child, it was always a hassle,” said one Taipei resident in his mid-fifties. “Even though my parents told me I was supposed to put it in the bin, I thought it smelled terrible, and the sight was disgusting so I’ve always just flushed.”

Aside from a small minority that reported lingering doubts about flushing, most said they were ready to flush at home now and would just follow whatever rules were laid down in public restrooms.

Chiu says that while flushing versus binning is just a small change in habit, making the switch will signal a transformation for Taiwan. “When foreign tourists come to Taiwan, they generally think wow, Taiwan is an advanced country,” he says. “But when they see the waste disposed of in bins, this is not a situation that an advanced country should have.”

“Every person needs to go to the bathroom every day. If we can make the bathroom environment better, this is really an improvement to the quality of life.”

Editor: Edward White

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