“The toilet is a spiritual room, a place to cherish and rejoice… When you open the toilet door, it’s not the toilet inside, it’s your future.”
So begins Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man, a new film about Jack Sim, a diplomat of dookie who, as founder of the World Toilet Organization, scours developing nations with a can-do attitude.
Yes, bathroom humor abounds in this winning documentary by Lily Zepeda, which opens in New York on Friday. We see Mr. Toilet brushing his hair with a toilet-bowl brush, literally parading around in a toilet costume, and even being made chief of a Samoan village named— you guessed it— Toilet. He’s so outspoken about bringing modern plumbing to underserved countries that you might call him an MC of WCs. Talking to embarrassed Chinese schoolgirls about bringing better facilities to their campus, he holds forth like a guru of doodoo. Having helped erect a “Poo Boy” statue, he’s a toilet-obsessed Banksy— or Tanksy, if you prefer.
Rest assured, all the potty humor is in the interest of bringing attention to shitty situations in countries where human waste pollutes waterways and poisons children, and where women are often raped and harassed while leaving “night soil” in open fields. Mr. Toilet’s stated plan is to make the subject of defecation— still a taboo in many parts of the world— funny, and eventually downright sexy. “Turning poop culture into pop culture,” he says, “is the fastest way to solve the sanitation crisis.”
Growing up in 1960s Singapore, Sim himself suffered the trauma of having to use outhouses infested with maggots and flies. No wonder, then, that he’s on a quest to make the bathroom the “happiest room in India,” a country where many don’t have or don’t use functioning toilets. One of the challenges: Many in rural areas have long believed it’s more hygienic and more enjoyable to squat in the open, while shooting the shit with friends. Even though India’s prime minister claims to have built over 100 million toilets as part of his Clean India effort to end the practice of open defecation, the problem isn’t being solved as quickly as the ambitious (his small staff at the World Toilet Organization would say overly ambitious), tireless Mr. Toilet would like it to be. When Sim tries to get a World Toilet Day enacted by the United Nations, a bureacrat says that such a resolution can’t be “plopped into the UN out of nowhere” (some cheeky animation emphasizes the pun). Still, Sim keeps “pushing and pushing” for it, and eventually succeeds. Obviously, he’s flush with excitement.
With Sim in town, we chatted with him about his mission and the future of flushing. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Welcome to New York City. So, how does our toilet situation compare to that of other cities you’ve visited?
I think that New York City has a lot of provision issues that are insufficient. You gotta go to Starbucks, you gotta go to some restaurant, and if you’re not a customer it’s kind of awkward. Also there’s homelessness and there’s open defecation in every major American city; there is open defecation in the same way as in India, Africa. So, first-world countries have a lot of third-world behavior. You can walk some places and smell things.
How do we fix that?
I would encourage that pay toilets be allowed, because if you have more pay toilets then there will be more of a business model and it will be available for people. Then there’s other things like LGBT toilets; you have to provide it so that people are able to use the toilet. Evey human being is a person, they all have to go to the toilet.
In the film, you’re shown venturing into the fields and onto the railroad tracks where impoverished Indians openly defecate. What’s the saddest or most horrifying thing you’ve witnessed during your years of monitoring the world’s toilet situation?
The most horrifying thing is that there is such a job in India called the sewer diver. You see a person diving into a manhole completely immersed in shit and coming out with whatever chokage and rubbish that is choking the pipe. And then he’s given another alcohol drink and he dives in again. This is the most inhumane job in the whole world. Sewer divers live till about 40 years old and they die, because every single day their body is destroyed by the toxic gases.
What’s the World Toilet Organization doing to address that problem?
We created the World Toilet College in Aurangabad to train these sewer divers to clean the chokage with a machine, and got a Bollywood star to donate the machine. So the World Toilet College that happened in the film is now very effective; we placed about 7,000 such workers and because they don’t have to breathe in the toxic gas inside the sewer, they live longer.
Is there a particular toilet system that you believe could be the solution to the sanitation crisis?
There are about 9 or 10 off-grid non-sewage systems that you can implement on sight. The cheapest would be the composting toilet; you just take a pee and you cover it and let it compost and make sure the flies don’t reach and transmit disease. Make sure it doesn’t contaminate underground water and that’s okay. In fact, that can be done by people themselves and can be zero cost. Then you have to build a hut over it, which you can build with straw and simple things— for instance, bamboo sticks— and then you need a roof where you probably use concrete planks or something else. So there’s different types from zero cost to let’s say $20-$30 for a nice toilet with brick walls and pour-flush and twin-pits composting for about $300. If you think about the high-tech toilet, they cost between $3,000 to $30,000 and that’s not in the range of poor people.
Among those high-end options, is there one that’s the Ferrari of toilets?
The Japanese toilet, the bidet toilet, the spray for anal washing, they have differences between spraying for a male one and a female one and also heated toilet seats. I think all of these are very fancy and very comfortable. In fact, the Japanese miss their toilets when they travel.
So Japan is the most highly evolved country where toilets are concerned?
I think America can learn from Japan. You will not find graffiti in the toilet, you will not find vandalism, and you will not find drug users or homeless people. Everything is orderly and every toilet you go into is clean. The reason is that the people feel the toilet is their face. If it is a public toilet, it reflects the community; if it’s a factory toilet, it reflects the quality control. And if it’s your house, it reflects your family. To arrive at this level of maturity and civilization, the Americans are 20, 30 years behind the Japanese.
Japanese washlet toilets have been around for a while; what sorts of bells and whistles can we expect from toilets in the future?
I think the future of the toilet is that the toilet becomes a health diagnositic center. Because when you download your poop and your pee, you are actually downloading a lot of data. So we can tell about your colorectal cancer or diabetes or whatever health issue. There’s so much that we can see.
So if I want to invest in a toilet-related startup, I should put my money in diagnostic toilets?
I think the diagnostic toilet could be something to invest in, because that actually saves a lot of money. And insurance companies want it to happen so that they don’t pay out too much. Preventative health and predictive health become cheaper than curing people after they already got into a serious, advanced stage of the disease. But these are things that are still not yet fully developed and is probably at startup level.
Poo-Pourri has become a wildly successful business.
Poo-Pourri is doing a very fantastic job because the way they’re marketing it is so irreverent, just like the World Toilet Organization. And they’re able to make something unspeakable actually very sellable. Once the toilet becomes popular and a normal subject, it will trigger out a whole bunch of consumer goods, because people will feel very normal.
Speaking of Poo-Pourri, do you have a favorite method of odor elimination?
The real problem is true: you don’t want to offend people with all your farts. But there’s nothing wrong with poop smell; the reason it has to smell is because it has to protect you from touching it, it has to protect children from playing with it, and the smell is a self-defense which is misunderstood with “Ew, i produced a pungent smell, I’m not a nice person.” No, you’re just a normal person.
What’s next for the WTO? Anything wacky like the Trump Village stunt?
We are planning how to franchise and license the brand of World Toilet Organization into products. So let’s say people like Uniqlo could make poop t-shirts and sell them and give us a license fee, or we could behave like Mickey Mouse or Disneyland or Star Wars products. The toilet is really fun, so we just signed up with some licensing agreement and we could do with a new revenue model. I still want to do a World Toilet Museum. It’s not ready. We have already designed the concept and an architect has made a very good concept for it.
What are your dream items for the World Toilet Museum? Elvis’s throne?
We’ve been collecting. It could be history, culture, and technology items. I have collected several. This is a long-term thing.