Creating greener museum toilets

From water consumption to toilet paper
Access Inclusion Sustainability
Caroline Parry
From installing waterless urinals to switching to plant-based cleaning products and recycled toilet paper, all museums can do more to make their toilets greener.

Proper maintenance

The first step in creating more sustainable and eco-friendly toilets is proper maintenance, says Ben Melham, the director of facilities and estates management consultancy Mortice Consulting.

“It is often about the construction and design,” Melham says. “Like anything, the biggest impact we have is at the build point.”

Things to consider include:

  • Sticking to a simple toilet design.
  • Avoiding the use of expensive fittings that are difficult to maintain.
  • Selecting durable materials for locks and toilet seats.

Reducing water use

With the average toilet using nine litres of water in every flush, water consumption is a key area of concern.

Mark Robert, the water adviser for the National Trust, is focusing on reducing water consumption across the trust’s portfolio of more than 500 properties.

He has started by installing smart meters and reducing the organisation’s reliance on mains water supplies by using rainwater and local sources where appropriate. The National Trust has also reviewed standards in its new-build facilities, such as switching to four-litre cistern flushes and shifting away from urinals with continuous water flow.

“Small changes can make a huge difference when it comes water usage,” Roberts says.

Step one: how much water are you using?

The first step to reducing water use is to find out how much water your property or properties are using in total.

Your water bill will outline your usage, but it will be more accurate and informative to install a smart water meter – the majority of energy companies are offering such meters as standard.

There are a variety of different types of meters and software packages for collecting the data. Costs can range from £150 to £4,000 per year. Energy and water suppliers and Waterwise, a not-for-profit supporting individuals and business to reduce their water usage and waste, can offer support and advice on which one is right for your organisation.

Smart meters can also be used to check that water isn’t flowing through the night or when the museum is closed.

If you find you do have water flowing in the early hours of the morning, then it could indicate a leak or that urinals are using timed or continuous flushes. Check whether urinals are set to switch off at night and back on in the morning.

Museums should also conduct regular “leaky loo” tests. Part of a toilet, such as rubber seals in the cistern, can corrode and perish over time, this can allow a constant stream of water to flow into the toilet bowl. Regularly check to see where this is happening, and encourage all staff to report issues as soon as they arise.

Dripping taps are another issue that should be resolved as soon as possible. Longer-term, fitting spray taps will reduce the overall flow of water while self-closing taps switch off after a certain time.

If your toilets have a dual flush system, then consider signage explaining the difference between the buttons. In some cases, the smaller button paradoxically causes the longer flush and the bigger button, the shorter flush.

Step two: consider the alternatives to using mains water

The alternatives include:

1. Composting toilet
These are most suited to venues with more space and a smaller number of visitors. The National Trust uses compost toilets at some of its rural sites, which have no access to mains water or sewage treatment. The properties tend to attract fewer than 50 visitors per day

2. Rainwater harvesting
Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, which sits on a former colliery site, was designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible. As well as using recycled materials and solar panels, the museum uses rainwater to flush its toilets.
Water collects in a tank on the museum’s roof, which is piped down to an underground tank and fed back into the building with the use of a pump. The water is filtered, but it is only usable for toilets.

Jo Raw, the assistant director of Northumberland Museums, says the rainwater system has reduced both its water consumption and its water bills.

But it is less robust than a mains water powered flush system as it is entirely reliant on the pump working. If the system breaks or if the filter gets blocked, the toilets stop flushing.

The pump has to be reset to get it working again, and sometimes that has to be done several times.

To ensure continuity, all of the museum’s duty managers and building staff receive training on the system. The museum also has an ongoing contract with its supplier, which means it will come out to deal with urgent issues and also service the system twice a year.

Raw says signs in the toilet highlight that the system uses rainwater, as well as explaining why the water can be grey or brown at times, especially after heavy rainfall.

“We think the rainwater system fits with our environmental ethos and it enhances our site,” she says.  

3. Reduced flush toilets

It is possible to retrofit toilets with cistern volume adjuster, which can significantly reduce water consumption if properly fitted. Water suppliers can offer advice on the available devices.

In new-builds, reduced-flush toilets should be installed as standard. The National Trust is installing four-litre flush toilets in all of its new-builds. New technology, such as Propelair toilets, which use a combination of water and air to flush, use only 1.5 litres.

4. Waterless urinals

Waterless urinals are made of a water-resistant – or hydrophobic – material that stops pooling from occurring, while an air flush system draws liquid out while a fan helps to reduce any smells.

Roberts is keen to explore these products for the National Trust, and points to department store retailer John Lewis as an example of where they are already in use.

Make small switches
Bradford’s Peace Museum has been making small changes to its behaviour, including changing its procurement habits as well as what it is buying.

Shannen Johnson, the museum’s learning and engagement officer, says it has:

  • Moved to recycled toilet paper and kitchen roll, which it now buys in bulk.
  • Switched to bars of soap in bamboo holders.
  • Switched to cleaning products using natural ingredients. These are made locally and come in refillable bottles.

Johnson advises that museums start small when it comes to making swaps. “Once you start, you will notice other changes you can make,” she says.

There have been many studies over the years into whether hand dryers or paper towels are the most environmentally friendly.

Generally, it’s believed that air dryers use fewer resources than paper towels, when you take the impact of production, transport and landfill into consideration.

Clearly there are greener choices for both options, as well as cost and maintenance considerations.

Caroline Parry is a freelance journalist

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