A furor washed over Paris this past summer, not concerning the future of post modernism, but male urinals: outdoor versions that sprouted up in heavily trafficked areas of the City of Lights. Some women protested that no such accommodations were provided for them, and other Parisians claimed that men bellying up to the red boxes, some with flowers on top, was unsightly.
More interesting than the ongoing fracas is the technology behind what’s become a convenience for some, an eye sore for others. It all started during a water shortage in California in the 1980s. Some engineers had gone to a bar in Los Angeles to have a beer. They lamented that so much fresh water was needed to carry away the bi-product of the beer. Indeed, about 5% of all fresh water used in the world goes down urinal drains. Being engineers, they set about searching for a way to reinvent that part of the men’s room experience.
And they succeeded.
Born amidst mandatory water rationing, which we’ve not seen the end of, Falcon Waterfree with offices in Michigan and California now sells to customers in almost 60 countries. The product, which is a chemically treated disposable cartridge, can be found in some surprising places. Male visitors to India’s Taj Mahal can find it there, where it’s forbidden to drill into ancient walls to add piping. It’s also in the Austrian Alps, where it graces the world’s highest altitude restroom. It’s also in more pedestrian places like the Beijing International Airport.
Michelle Kalatian, Falcon Waterfree’s vice president of international marketing, says each urinal equipped with her company’s product saves about 40,000 gallons of water per year. With over 350,000 urinals using the product, the total savings is more than 14 billion gallons of water per year. Considering Falcon Waterfree now has a number of competitors, the savings are even greater.
Kalatian acknowledges that other companies have jumped into the market but says that her firm continues to innovate. There have been several redesigns in the past few years, adding improvements that include longer product life and a completely recyclable cartridge. Also, the product was once made in China, but now is 100% made in the U.S.
Falcon Waterfree does not make the urinals because they are porcelain and too costly to ship. So Kalatian partners with urinal manufacturers in other parts of the world. The urinals are then sold with the cartridges, and the manufacturer trains their customers on how to use them. Manufacturers with customers in large regional markets, such as Latin America, provide Falcon Waterfree with abundant additional sales and maximum brand exposure with minimal marketing costs.
As French passersby are discovering, not all urinals are the same. Kalatian said her team learned this lesson and applied it in the shape of the cartridge: round in some cultures, square in others. Toilet cultures are also different, with some preferring to clean urinals with sponges and rags while, in Japan for example, they prefer distance from the urinal surfaces and use brushes. Sales cycles also have a cultural element, with Europeans and buyers from some Asian countries fine with placing orders quickly. In Japan, it took five years to sign a major contract.
Just think of all the water that could have been saved.
Are the new Paris urinals cum flower boxes supplied by Falcon? No, they use a layer of straw that controls odor. Officials there say they will harness nutrients in the urine to produce compost for parks, gardens and agriculture. They claim that one person produces enough urine in a year to provide potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous to fertilize 400 square meters of wheat.
The call of nature may never be the same again.
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