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Flush With Pride

Waterless urinal more than just a place to...

September 8, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Andy Guy

The average urinal uses 40,000 gallons of water per year. But this urinal at Michigan State University uses no water, and is more sanitary and easier to clean.

EAST LANSING, MI — Never mind putting the seat down. Gaston Gosselin has completely and intentionally forgotten the flush.

That is because the urinal in his office lavatory at Michigan State University requires no water. Urine simply flows to the sewer through an innovative filter located where the drain would be on a conventional fixture. Mr. Gosselin goes. And then he just goes.

“I’m getting used to it,” he says. “I now have to remind myself to flush when I’m somewhere else.”

As the manager of maintenance services at Michigan State, Mr. Gosselin initially experimented with the waterless urinal several years ago in response to student-driven environmental concerns. Today he is steadily installing them across this sprawling campus to improve sanitary conditions, slash expenses, and help protect the Great Lakes. “We’ve made the water-free urinal our new standard,” he says.

Urinal Is Example of Innovation
Mr. Gosselin’s innovative water conservation project illustrates how dramatically the traditional thinking behind how humans use water to meet even the most basic of daily needs is changing in important and beneficial ways. It comes as Great Lakes leaders confront two common, intertwined, and profound challenges: Ensuring that the region’s economy is competitive in the 21st century and sustaining the freshwater resources that make the Great Lakes region an attractive place to live and do business.

Policy makers, however, have yet to fully integrate the two discussions. What’s missing is a clear understanding of how the region can take advantage of its globally unique water resources to inspire industrial achievements while enhancing the quality of life.

“The region continues to lack a detailed vision for a sustainable future,” says George Kuper, president of the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries, in a smart essay published in the group’s newsletter. “A sustainable development plan for the Great Lakes region would ensure that our economic, social, and natural resources are available for future generations without compromising current needs.” 

Urinal As Starting Point For Policy Making
Mr. Kuper suggests that the time is right for government, environmental, and industry leaders to agree to shape this new vision.

First, Great Lakes leaders continue to develop numerous far-reaching policy proposals in response to the host of challenges confronting the integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem, from stopping the spread of invasive alien species to ending bulk sewage spills to preventing mass water diversions. The region’s U.S. governors and Canadian premiers, for example, on July 19, 2004 proposed a historic plan to improve oversight of large water withdrawals.

Second, the Congress is exploring the possibility of a multi-billion dollar restoration initiative that could seed creativity and finance a forward-thinking action plan to clean up the Great Lakes. 

And third, as the region continues to shed manufacturing jobs, top officials contend that future economic development depends on designing a strategy to attract the knowledge-based industries and talented workers that will power the 21st-century marketplace.

Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, explains the fundamental shift as an economy evolving “from muscles to minds, from lifting to learning, from brawn to brains.”

Reduce Costs
And from flush toilets to waterless urinals. The story of waterless urinals at Michigan State suggests that a thoughtful vision which more closely organizes economic activity around a heightened sense of stewardship is a clever way to reduce operating costs in the workplace, sustain the Great Lakes, and even create new jobs.

Consider Falcon Waterfree Technologies, the Los Angeles-based global company that distributes the pioneering potties that are reducing water demand at the university. The average traditional urinal uses approximately 40,000 gallons of water per year. But Falcon formed to advance research and development of the skills to reduce water demand in a world where over-consumption and pollution threaten to make the resource less plentiful and more expensive. Now football stadiums, factories, and public facilities can be equipped with a modern and innovative product: Urinals that use no water. 

The topic of saving water historically is not a top priority for the people of the Great Lakes, a region soaked with unfathomable amounts of fresh water that comprise some 90 percent of the United States supply. But Jay Troger, president of Falcon’s U.S. division, suggests that conservation has the potential to bring about extensive benefits for the Great Lakes and the people that depend on it.

“Our urinals are a triple play,” Mr. Troger says. “They are proven more hygienic. They are fantastic for the environment. And they save money.”

A Small Step Toward A Big Solution
Beyond building an ethic of conservation, the Falcon fixtures could immediately help Great Lakes citizens address one major concern: Swimming beach closures due to increasingly frequent sewage spills in lakes and rivers. In May 2004 alone the spring rains overwhelmed Milwaukee’s municipal system and washed approximately 4.6 billion gallons of raw sewage into Lake Michigan. In the same month Detroit hemorrhaged as much as five billion gallons into the Rouge and Detroit Rivers and Lake St. Clair.     

“Lots of cities and local governments are running out of waste treatment capacity, a very expensive challenge,” Mr. Troger says. “So anything you can do to reduce the amount of water going into sewer lines and the treatment facility is good. And we help do that. As near as we can tell, something like 5 percent of water is used through urinals. We’re talking about a huge potential reduction.”

Most agree that, as worldwide sources of fresh water grow increasingly scarce, the Great Lakes Basin’s abundant aquatic resources, if healthy, will help to retain and grow existing industries, lure corporate executives and the young employees they covet, and generate new economic opportunities.

But Falcon also represents the type of creative, knowledge-based industry that could help diversify and expand the Great Lakes economy. The company in 2003 moved its U.S. division to Grand Rapids, Mich., because of its large pool of skilled workers, low business costs, and central location to customers and suppliers.

The business is still in the start-up phase. However, Falcon already services a global client list and, according to Mr. Troger, business is booming. The company currently is growing at a rate hovering around 20 percent per month, he said.

Gaston Gosselin has installed approximately 60 water-free urinals on Michigan State’s campus. The fixtures have alleviated pressure problems in historic buildings such as Olds Hall and eliminated odor problems in facilities like Bessey Hall. And the urinals have begun to transform the university into a more effective and responsible operation.

“The new fixtures are easier to clean so we’ve experienced lower maintenance costs,” Mr. Gosselin said. “They are more sanitary than conventional urinals. In new buildings, we can reduce up-front construction costs because you don’t have to install the usual plumbing. And we’ve reduced operating expenses because you don’t use as much water, or energy to pump it.”

Andy Guy, a journalist, directs the Great Lakes Water Project and manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s regional office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org

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