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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 14, 2010

Broken Flush

By Neal Milner

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The men’s room on the sixth floor of Saunders Hall at the University of Hawai'i-Mänoa is a model of sustainability, offering three kinds of urinals that use little or no water. The problem is that they use too little to get the job done.

NORMAN SHAPIRO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The three sustainable, "low flush, non-touch" urinals in the University of Hawai'i political science department men's room are what you might call iUrinals. When Steve Jobs first introduced the iMac 12 years ago, he said that the new computer would inform, instruct and inspire computer users. It was a symbol of a new order.

It's the same with the new urinals. One of the three even has the same cute, stubby shape as Apple's first iMac. Instead of a Steve Jobs pep talk, an eye-level diagram directly above each urinal explains how the plumbing devices work and why they break new ground. Bullet points next to this diagram say: NO FLUSHING. SAVES WATER. REDUCES COSTS. EASY MAINTENANCE.

The middle urinal is in fact as sustainable as a toilet can get. It uses no water at all because it has been broken for months, covered with a large gray plastic trash bag. You can't get any easier maintenance than that. No one expects it to be fixed anytime soon. No one complains. It is no longer a problem to be solved. It is now a fact of life. Sustainability versus the old order at work. The old order is winning, as it has for years.

My thoughts turned to broken urinals when I read Lee Cataluna's Feb. 4 column about the troubles getting new doors to fit in the Art Building.

There are doors, and then there are bathrooms, and the university has chronic toilet troubles. Men's rooms across campus are littered with urinal corpses covered with somber plastic body bags. Plato was the last person to pee in the philosophy building's broken urinal.

Guys adjust. If only one of two or one of three is still working, hey, that's OK. All you need is one, just as long as you don't have to make a full-bladder sprint to another building. Many of the toilets that are technically operable ("technically" meaning no body bag, hand-lettered "out of order" sign, or yellow crime scene tape stretched across the stall door) also don't work.

These are not actually broken because they were made to work that way — born to be bad. The Yugo is the worst car ever built. A Yugo that runs like a Yugo is technically not broken because it runs the way Yugos are supposed to run.

Think of a 2-year-old throwing her first pebble into a pond. That generates the same kind of ripples these toilets produce when they are flushed. Like their sustainable successors, they use very little water — sustainability when sustainability wasn't cool. The problem is that they use too little to get the job done.

Instead of repairs or replacements, we get signs. People post unofficial sets of instructions. Some are detailed: "Press button. Count to five and release." Others are terse: "Please flush!" short for "Hey, you got to flush another time. Why? Take a look."

At UH, the old order is the most sustainable thing of all. Broken things stay broken for so long that no one considers them broken anymore. Inferior products? Don't fix them or replace them. Put it on the user. No matter how the bathroom signs are worded, they all come down to mean one thing: "Hey, buddy boy, it's your problem. Fix it. Good luck. Don't bother to let us know how it turns out."

Neal Milner teaches political science at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa, where he has worked for 37 years.