19 November 2020

World Toilet Day
The Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies launches a research report on public toilets recommending innovative policy for toilet cleanliness improvement



Today (19 November) is World Toilet Day, and the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies (HKIAPS) of The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) has launched a report titled as “Having regard for oneself and others: Promoting proper behaviour to improve public toilet cleanliness” that advocates a series of practical policies for improving public toilet facilities. The condition and cleanliness of Hong Kong’s public toilets are far from satisfactory and lag behind the economic development of the city and the educational attainment of the population. In light of this, the “Policy Research @ HKIAPS”, a research programme under the HKIAPS, conducted a territory-wide random sampling telephone survey in March 2020 to examine the perceptions of the cleanliness of public toilets.[1] The survey results indicated that nearly 60% of the respondents regarded government public toilets as unsanitary, though only 15% were frequent patrons. The three main issues related to the unsanitary conditions were a lack of flushing water, foul odour, and slippery floors.

Regarding the perceptions for the cause of unsanitary conditions, 80% blamed a lack of civility on the part of users. The other reasons, in descending order of frequency, were: inadequate cleaners (or the frequency of cleaning), too high usage, and the malfunction of toilet facilities. In light of this, the survey further asked the respondents to indicate their method to deal with dirt they improperly left in public toilets. It was found that comparing to female and users of other types of public toilets (provided by the commercial sector or public institutions), males and government toilet users were inclined not to deal with the dirt. With regard to the introduction of new measures aimed at improving sanitary conditions, the measure received the most support was the imposition of a penalty on users violating sanitary measures in public toilets. Then, the measures in order of support from the second to the last were: arranging primary and secondary school students to clean school toilets to cultivate civility, installing a flush alarm to remind users about flushing, recruiting “public toilet ambassadors” to promote public toilet hygiene, and imposing entrance fees. This suggests the society believed that more resources should be devoted to educate users in order to correct improper toilet behaviour. 

From the analysis of existing policy, it is found that the government has been devoting a lot of resources to toilet refurbishment and the outsourcing of cleaning and maintenance services, while the expense for a public education programme is much lower. There is a policy gap between existing toilet policies. The public perceives the government should put more resources on educating users rather than refurbishment works. Furthermore, the current educational messages are too straightforward, which makes it difficult to change long-established habits. There is also a lack of in-depth research to examine how toilet behaviour is formed and evaluate the effectiveness of currency policy. This leads to a waste of resources and repeated complaints about toilet cleanliness.

The current toilet governance logic is that the government believes self-regulating toilet behaviour can be fostered through refurbishment works and cleaning services, while improved sanitary conditions will teach users to appreciate the clean toilet environment and the effort the toilet attendants put in, encouraging them to maintain toilet cleanliness. However, the poor toilet conditions indicate that the above current governance logic does not work, and therefore the government should adopt an innovative approach to address this age-old problem of unsanitary public toilets. Based on the policy analysis and the survey result, HKIAPS recommends a series of policies from three aspects: structure (toilet and related facilities design), management (cleaning and maintenance) and education (the cultivation of civility).

Structure:

  1. Include both cubicles and urinals in determining the ratio of male-to-female toilet facilities as 1:2;
  2. Introduce different toilet facility designs, such as foot-operated flush mechanisms, to cater users’ different needs;
  3. Install more infrared sensor facilities, such as automatic flush mechanisms, which encourage users to flush the toilet. 

Management:

  1. Apply nudge theory by posting signage on the toilet floor or handprints above hand basins, nudging people to wash their hands to reduce disease transmission;
  2. Set up an interactive mobile application to encourage the general public to monitor  sanitary conditions and malfunction of facilities;
  3. Better use of social resources, such as allowing the commercial sector to manage a public toilet in return for free advertising space, a win-win situation for the government and business. 

Education:

  1. Revitalise the historic toilet at the junction of Staunton Street and Aberdeen Streets into an education centre and light meal point;
  2. Establish toilet heritage traits in Central and Western district;
  3. Subsidise schools to set up sanitary uniform teams, cultivating a sense of hygiene awareness among young students. 

For detail, please download the full report in the following link (Chinese version only):
http://www.hkiaps.cuhk.edu.hk/wd/ni/20201118-141014_3_policy_research_report_02.pdf


[1] In the survey, a total of 1,006 respondents aged 18 or above were successfully interviewed (of them, 542 respondents came from landline numbers and 464 respondents from mobile numbers), for a response rate of 39.2% for landline phones and 46.9% for mobile phones. The sampling error is estimated at plus or minus 3.09 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

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