Toiletmobile Headed for Seoul

For MTThe visit to South Korea is just the latest leg of the Oka car's "toilet tour."
Somewhere east of Yekaterinburg, a man is driving a toilet to Seoul.

"Toilet culture is a part of national culture," Alexei Maksunov, deputy head of the Russian Toilet Union, said by telephone Monday -- World Toilet Day -- while driving a clunky Oka car outfitted with a toilet.

Maksunov, who has already driven the toilet car more than 12,000 kilometers throughout Europe and Russia, is heading for the World Toilet Summit in Seoul, South Korea.

"It is a toilet tour," he said.

The summit is an industry-run event that also attempts to raise the quality of public bathrooms and draw attention to the plight of those with limited access to proper toilet facilities.

It is a problem that affects an estimated 2.6 billion people who have no access to safe and hygienic toilets, according to United Nations statistics.

Meanwhile, Russian toilet experts urged people to talk about toiletry problems in a country where public bathrooms used to be so uncommon that the arrival of malodorous, plastic porta-potties on the street was seen as a major advance.

Igor Alimov, a researcher at the Institute of Ethnography and Anthropology in St. Petersburg, laments the fact that toilet culture has been largely ignored in society.

"You can compare it to the problem with animal [welfare], which people closed their eyes to for a long time," Alimov, who wrote a book on international toilet culture, said in a telephone interview.

"Toilets are very important. You have to study them."

Russians, for example, use much less toilet paper than people in other countries, averaging around two kilograms of paper per capita annually compared with 22 kilograms in the United States and around 16 kilograms in Western European countries, said Lyudmila Tanavskaya, a spokesman for Bioekologia, a domestic toilet maker.

The reason is that "there is a large expanse where there are no toilets," Tanavskaya said, adding that Moscow and St. Petersburg were coming close to European levels.

Toilet culture has made great strides in the northern capital in recent years, Tanavskaya said. "They leave the toilets cleaner," she said proudly, adding that there are far fewer puddles left behind these days. "It is a sign of culture."

As part of Russia's contribution to improving the nation's bathroom behavior, Bioekologia tried to persuade St. Petersburg city authorities to copy a U.S. tactic in which excerpts from literary classics touching on personal hygiene -- as when Tom Sawyer is told off in Huckleberry Finn for not washing his hands -- were left in toilets. There was a marked improvement in hygiene, said Tanavskaya, who failed to convince St. Petersburg City Hall. She has yet to find any good examples in Russian literature, she said.

"People should have a place for their natural needs," said Alimov, the St. Petersburg researcher. "In Russia, people often pee in stairwells. That is not right. For that not to happen, you need toilets. For people to think about needing toilets, you need to talk about it."

The toilet car, Maksunov said, has attracted interest everywhere it's been -- and not just because its mounted on the back of a car. The high-tech porta-potty does not use water, is ecologically friendly and can handle up to 200 people in a single day.

A toilet expo in Moscow last year, partly organized by Mansukov, featured a terrorist-proof toilet, strong enough to withstand a suicide bomb attack.