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Paris Has An Ingenious Solution To Public Urination: Turn Pee Into Compost

Designed to look like flower planters, Paris’s new Uritrottoir urinals store pee on beds of straw or sawdust, which is eventually turned into fertilizer for local parks.

Outside the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris, two red boxes topped with flowers look like overdesigned planters, or, from the side, mailboxes. They’re actually public urinals called Uritrottoirs, designed to catch pee in a system that turns it into compost for local parks.

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“The function of the Uritrottoir is to solve the foul-smelling urban nuisances associated with nocturnal ‘wild pees’ in the city centers,” says Laurent Lebot from Faltazi, the industrial design firm that created the new urinal.

Paris, like other cities, struggles with public urination. The city has installed hundreds of free, self-cleaning public toilets over the last decade, and now has an “incivility brigade” that hands out $75 fines to anyone caught peeing outside. But the problem persists, and the city has to pay another team of workers to clean up the mess.

The new urinal is designed to be as convenient to pee on as a wall while keeping the city clean. The box funnels pee onto a bed of straw, sawdust, or wood chips. Inside, a sensor monitors how much urine is inside, and then notifies an attendant when it’s full. The straw is carted away to the edges of the city, where it decomposes into compost for Paris gardens and parks. Unlike public toilets, the system doesn’t require any water.

It also naturally reduces odor. “The combination of carbon and nitrogen–straw and urine–inhibits the production of ammonia, thus bad smells,” says Lebot.

The inspiration for the design came from a trip to the U.K.-based Center for Alternative Technology, which had a makeshift urinal made of a straw bale. Lebot realized the design could be tweaked.

“When you urinate too high, it splashes,” he says. “Hence the idea of imagining a small object that slips easily into straw bales to be able to provide a sanitary device that’s inexpensive, ecological, and efficient, and then can make its own compost.”

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That design, called the Uritonnoir, is now used at music festivals, campgrounds, and sporting events; the Uritrottoir is the sleeker, urban version for cities.

In Paris, if the trial goes well at the Gare de Lyon station, the national train company plans to buy more to install at other stations.

The only challenge is making sure that people recognize that the box is only a urinal–which is an issue that San Francisco faced when trying out a similar pilot program in 2014. “This is totally new equipment, and actually people are not yet accustomed,” says Lebot. “A sign will be associated with Uritrottoir to explain its function.”

[All Images: via Faltazi]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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