Public Toilets in China: an Exploratory Study

Public Toilets in China: An Exploratory Study on The Demands, Needs, And Expectations Including Product-Service-System

Research Background

Humans are now predominantly urban species (Hannah, 2018). For the first time, over half of the world’s population, which is about four billion, lives in cities and megacities (Hannah, 2018). By 2050, this number is expected to increase to two-thirds (Hannah, 2018). Many new townies, especially those in abject poverty, are not moving into leafy suburbs with gleaming apartments and regenerated post-industrial neighborhoods. They are being born—or are arriving into—rapidly expanding and overcrowded slums. More often than not, such neighborhoods and the main business parts of the towns or megacities—including the markets— have no safe, clean water sources and private toilets. The WHO is estimates that close to one-fifth of urbanites live without a proper toilet (WHO and UNICEF, 2015). Also, the report indicates that 2.4 billion people globally still use poor sanitation facilities (WHO and UNICEF, 2015). And this includes an estimated 946 million who still practice open defecation (WHO and UNICEF, 2015). Many more rely on public toilets that do not meet the minimum requirement of privacy, safety, and hygiene –including crowded, dirty, and communal toilets. The outlook in China is not optimistic either. China has undergone a significant scale of urbanization since the 1990s. Millions of villagers moved into cities and megacities all over the country. These megacities create unprecedented health risks: including sanitation problems and air pollution.

According to Afacan and Gurel (2015) Provision of public toilets is a central planning and design concern that aims to make cities and megacities more accessible, convenient, and inclusive for everyone in society. Ensuring that a public toilet is available in cities is available and accessible to everyone, particularly those with continence issues, which can be considered vital to ensuring individuals can move about freely in cities.


Lack of good accessible toilets impacts not only the quality of the and city centers, bus stations, and parks, but it also erodes the dignity and quality of human lives. Besides, toilets are one of the most basic facilities that city residents and tourists depend on. A great quality toilet provision instills confidence in not only the public toilets, but also other facilities in general, inspires a good impression among tourists, and contributes to multiple other essential aspects of the contemporary life. Whether it is tourist or residents’ families with children or the elderly in society, it is fundamental that people have confidence in the public facilities they require, and is accessible, especially when they are out and about in the cities. People rightly expect clean, safe, easily accessible, and well-maintained public toilets. In cities where public toilets are available and easily accessible for all, people can enjoy physical activities and outings in the city parks. They can similarly improve city environmental health.

Besides, some people in society need to visit the toilet frequently. This includes the elderly, pregnant women, or those in their periods, children, and people with chronic conditions. Also, people who are toilet challenged need access to toilets suddenly, urgently, and without warning. In a nutshell, people expect a clean

Why you chose this topic

Greed (2003) argued that creating a 24-hour city culture requires a good-for-all approach to be considered in the planning and designing of public toilets. A report by Cheng (2019) indicated that the Chinese government is backing up the nightlife economy to help boost growth. This means an increase in more bars, pubs, and an increase in clubs in towns and city centers, largely aimed at young city revelers. Increased nightlife activities mean increased demand for public toilets to meet the late-night needs of the city revelers. According to Greed (2003), attention to detail in the provision of public facilities for daily life is relatively more suitable and effective than coming up with “grand projects” than aim to stimulate the recovery of a given area. For instance, increasing economic activity in erstwhile areas increases the flow of shoppers, workers, commuters, and even tourists, but the flow may be significantly affected if good public toilets are not available or accessible.

Therefore, I chose this topic because China is gradually embracing the nightlife economy; this means that demands for public toilets will increase significantly. And since the flow of people with different needs will increase, the need for public toilets that is fit-for-all will subsequently increase. Further, a comprehensive study related to public toilets has been conducted in other developed nations. Such studies have aimed to improve the accessibility, comfort, and availability of public toilets. Such studies have resulted in the use of energy-conserving and intelligent technology in the planning and construction of public toilets. However, there is little research on the needs, demands, expectations, and product-service system of public toilets in China.


As any residents of China and or passing tourists will agree, China’s public sanitation facilities, especially public toilets, require vast major upgrades. For instance, the rural towns where some of the sanitation facilities are nothing more than bricks for squatting and hole surrounded by a fiery stink and breeding insects. The ongoing toilet revolution campaign is doing tremendous jobs where some 69,000 public toilets have been constructed in tourist sites all over China. But the public toilets in China still show a litany of inadequacies (Thomas, N. (2018). For instance, the majority of the public toilets do not provide toilet papers—authorities claim that the rolls are often stolen, and thus there is no need. It is no wonder then that a survey conducted by Sina Home and Faenza Bathrooms, which polled about 0,000 Chinese residents, reported that the average satisfaction rate of public toilets is 2.2-out -of five (Thomas, 2018).

Moreover, even though the Toilet Revolution has greatly expanded the sewer system in some parts of the country, China is a massive country, and in fragmented megacities like Shanghai, there are huge inequalities concerning access to good toilets (Iossifova, 2015). For instance, while the authorities have done well to redevelop some swaths of land, pockets of erstwhile neighborhoods are yet to be touched (Iossifova, 2015). The huge problem is that a lot of these dilapidated neighborhoods are home to a growing proportion of China’s aging citizens, who largely rely on communal waste disposal and collection stations and traditional Chinese night pots (Iossifova, 2015). The youth feel disgusted and disdain for this traditional way of life and thus choose to stay way, and hence leave the elderly and frail isolated (Iossifova, 2015). Another problem is the 225 million Chinese rural-to-urban migrants who cannot afford the massive accommodation prices in good neighborhoods. Most are forced to reside in neighborhoods with substandard living conditions, subsequently adding more pressure to the provision of public toilets (Iossifova, 2015; Thomas, 2018).

Aim of research


This study has three aims. The first is to determine how product-service systems can improve the experience of public toilet users. The second aim explores the current practice to ensure users have a better experience using public toilets. The third aim is to determine the challenges that hinder the creation of a better user experience.

Research questions  

  1. What are the current practices for ensuring users have better experience in the public toilets?
  2. What are the limitations that influence the creation of better experiences for public toilet users?
  3. How can PSS improve the experience of customers in public toilets?

Importance of the study

The study is critical because it aims to provide guidelines for stakeholders responsible for planning designing and constructing public toilets in China cities to design a contemporary public toilet. Similarly, this study might provide important information that will help designers improve the accessibility, comfort, and availability of public toilets to enhance the fundamental rights of the people. This will also help improve the living standards of people living with disabilities as well as the old and the frail in society. In other words, this study aims to recommend a design that would be inclusive, user convenience, low maintenance, resistance to vandalism, and one that would allow for easy management and cleaning.

Thesis structure

This thesis is divided into five sections: the introduction, literature review; Methodology; the Analysis section; and the conclusion. The introduction sections contain the research background, the motivation, the reason for choosing this particular topic, the problem statement, the aim, and the research questions, and the significance of the study. The literature review sections follow the introduction sections and provide a comprehensive summary of other scholars’ works regarding the topic. The third section is the methodology. It discusses how the research was conducted, including research design, how the data was collected and analyzed, and the rationale for the research design. The fourth section is the analysis section, which contains the results and the discussion. The fifth section, which is the last section presents the conclusion.


Literature review


This chapter presents a discussion of the theoretical framework of the product-service systems. Specifically, this section has provided the definition of PSS provided in the literature, how the PSS works, and the social, environmental, and economic benefits of the PSS. Also, this section presents works of other scholars related to the demand, expectation, and needs of public toilet users when it comes to age, gender, and ability. Further, this section has discussed the importance of involving uses in designing public toilets.

Theoretical framework

Definition of product-service systems (PSS)

Regarding the definition of product-service systems (PSS), Geet et al. (2015) defined PSS as a resource-efficient model that replaces selling a mix of products with providing or selling services. According to the author, these service-oriented systems focus on fulfilling the clients’ needs rather than on product purchases (Geet et al., 2015). For example, a user needs a clean toilet and not cleaning products to clean the toilets (Geet et al., 2015). In essence, these shifts the ownership of product towards product use and subsequently through product impact (Geet et al., 2015). These shifts enable efficiency gains, enables reduction of cost, and used to attain important environmental objectives, including energy efficiency and resource efficiency (Geet et al., 2015). Goedkoop et al. (1999) noted that PSS is a marketable mix of services and products capable of jointly meeting the needs of products. Another important contribution concerning the definition is that of Mont (2002), which asserts that PSS is a system of services, products, infrastructure, and support networks. Baines et al. (2007) contribute to the concept by including the concept of generating customer value through the PSS. The classification of PSS described by several literature works is that of Tukker (2004), who divided PSS into three categories: result-oriented, product-oriented, and result-oriented.

How PSS works

According to Geet et al. (2015), the traditional interaction between the service provider and the client, which is based on the sale/purchase of a service, parties involved have opposing interests. The client’s main focus is to reduce the cost of product or service acquisition, while the underlying rationale of a standard model is to increase product sales. Manzini, Vezzoli, and Clark (2001) agreed with the perspective by asserting that the PSS model realigns the relationship between the service provider or the product supplier and the client by taking into account the cost of the product’s life-cycle. Here, the authors note that for PSS, the product or service supplier usually retains the ownership and responsibility of the product cycle (Manzini, Vezzoli, and Clark, 2001). Kjaer et al. (2019) added to the perspective by asserting that the incentive of the supplier and the client to reduce costs is aligned. Therefore, this means that the PSS has great potential to help decouple the consumption of products or use of service from economic growth. In other words, when users receive the full benefit of the service, it ceases to be in the interest of the service providers to maximize the sales for the service (Kjaer et al., 2019). Instead, it is the responsibility of service providers to focus on the quality of the service and ensuring that the clients are satisfied fully.

Benefits of PSS

A number of works of literature that outline the benefits of the PSS focused more on the benefits to the organizations, particularly the economic benefits. However, Mahut et al. (2017) and Annarelli, Battistella, and Nonino (2016) cited some significant internal benefits of this model, including the differentiation against competitors as the services are usually difficult to be copied. For instance, Moro et al. (2020) provided economic benefits of PSS, including an increase in revenue, image enhancement, an increase in value-added, elimination of seasonality, consistent cash flow, and increased client satisfaction. On the other hand, Annarelli, Battistella, and Nonino (2016) cited the development of new markets, enhancement of customer loyalty, reduced cost concerning energy and material and efficient use of the services or products. Qu et al. (2017) presented benefits to the customers, including the disconnection to the product ownership responsibilities, more customized solutions, reduced for service and product operation, professional maintenance, reduction of costs, and disconnection from consumption needs. However, what is not explored is how the PSS can be used to improve customer satisfaction. Moreover, another essential point that needs further research is how PSS can be used to determine the customers’ expectations, needs, and demands.

Considering the benefits on the environment, some of the advantages cited include greater use of the services and products to reduce the impact on the environment (Annarelli, Battistella and Nonino, 2016). Other benefits include, the efficiency of consumption, the closing of the product life cycle, waste reduction, decreased use of resources, enhances use and recycling, dematerialization, and durability (Moro et al., 2020) However, it is evident that in literature the environmental and the economic benefits of PSS are not clearly communicated to organizations. Also, the social benefits of PSS are rarely addressed in the literature, and those included are enhancing job creation and facilitating reverse logistics (Annarelli, Battistella, and Nonino, 2016). Others include allowing more people to access the product or service and improve the well-being of people in society in general (Moro et al., 2020).

Needs demands and expectations when it comes to gender, disability, and age

Literature indicates that inadequate and unequal provision of public toilets makes it impractical to achieve a healthy, sustainable, and inclusive cities (Afacan and Gurel, 2015). Ramster, Greed, and Bichard (2018) agree with the perspective by arguing that the public is rarely consulted on the design requirements of public toilets. However, social conventions and user perceptions appear to play a huge role in whether or not the public rejects or appreciates the different types of toilets currently provided (Ramster, Greed, and Bichard, 2018). This often means that some groups in society have difficulties when visiting public toilets. This perspective is consistent with Greed (2019), who claims that the current public toilet landscape remains detrimental to women. The author asserts that women are provided with half as many public toilet facilities. Yet, they double the number of men in public, thereby resulting in long ques in the ladies (Greed, 2019).

Similarly, Ramster, Greed, and Bichard (2018) pointed out that the current public toilet designs do not consider the biological function, including menstruation and that the overall provision fails to meet women’s social and biological factors. Also, the authors claimed that public toilets strengthen binary gender in contemporary society (Ramster, Greed, and Bichard, 2018). The results are that some users’ rights to access the public toilet are infringed (Ramster, Greed, and Bichard, 2018). YouGov’s survey on toilet parity found that 59% o women who use public toilets indicated that they queue every time they visit the ladies, compared to only 11% of men (George, 2018). The study indicated that women usually sophisticated clothes, bags, and sometimes kids to deal with (George, 2018). Also, women use toilets to not only to relieve themselves but sometimes to change sanitary pads (George, 2018).

Moreover, Soewardi and Panduwiranita (2016) indicated that people with disabilities experience additional problems when visiting public toilets. The existing design does not meet the required criteria for people living with disabilities (Soewardi and Panduwiranita, 2016). The author notes that the disabled who include the physically impaired, visually impaired, and those with cognitive and hearing impairment, prefer specific toilet to the widely provided public toilet (Soewardi and Panduwiranita, 2016). The authors found that good design should be comfortable, safe, and easy for the disabled to use (Soewardi and Panduwiranita, 2016). Also,the author showed that the design must be flexible, aesthetic, and should provide clear instruction for use (Soewardi and Panduwiranita, 2016).

This perspective is consistent with Mayer and Panek (2017), who argued that the traditional sitting style toilet system does not fit the needs of most people with disabilities or older people in everyday life (Mayer and Panek, 2017). The authors claimed that it is important to involve vulnerable users in designing a toilet system to improve user satisfaction (Mayer and Panek, 2017). A subsequent paper by Panek and Mayer (2017) proposed using a stationary robotic public toilet system to help improve the satisfaction of the elderly and the disabled. The authors assert that the main functionality of the robotic system is the tilt and height adjustment, support for standing up and sitting down, speech interaction, and automatic inference of any emergence situation (Panek and Mayer, 2017).

Demands and needs and expectations of users are vital in designing public toilets

Literature has shown that the needs, expectations, and demands of toilet users are important in the design of public toilets. This perspective is evident in a report Geertz, and Iyer FSG (2017), which indicated various slums in Pune and Mumbai government-led public toilets were unintentionally built in a way that discouraged female users. For instance, in one slum, female and male toilets faced each other; in another, the community toilets had doors directly facing the streets (Geertz and Iyer FSG, 2017). This clearly shows that the stakeholders never consulted the users when designing public toilets. However, after engaging the users later, the stakeholders agreed to accommodate the user’s needs (Geertz and Iyer FSG, 2017). Also, the designers listened to and responded to the cleaners’ needs and sought toilet doors that swung both ways to enhance easier cleaning (Geertz and Iyer FSG, 2017).

Another research conducted in the City of Warangal, India, aimed to determine the role gender plays in the design and use of public toilets (Cardone, Schrecongost, and Gilsdorf, 2018). The authority sought to review the use of the public toilets in the city of Warangal and found that women opted not to use the facility for several reasons (Cardone, Schrecongost, and Gilsdorf, 2018). 63% indicated that they preferred female-only communal toilets with an entrance separate from that of men, while 72% indicated that they preferred to have a female caretaker (Cardone, Schrecongost, and Gilsdorf, 2018). The second factor that deterred women from using such facilities was the unclean, unhygienic facilities, unclean surroundings, men crowding around the toilets, lack of privacy, and male caretakers (Cardone, Schrecongost, and Gilsdorf, 2018).

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