‘Excrement lying on the floor, no toilet seats’: Brussels’ public restroom crisis
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‘Excrement lying on the floor, no toilet seats’: Brussels’ public restroom crisis

Screenshot from video. Credit: Lukas Gevaert.

Brussels’ “unusable” public toilets have come under renewed scrutiny in the midst of the coronavirus crisis after a video emerged of three young men who opted to clean a cubicle for a school project.

“It was disgusting, the toilet was just unusable. Although the toilets are reportedly being cleaned by the city, the walls were black with the smoke of people who had been smoking inside, some days there was excrement lying on the floor,” said Gianni Slootmaekers, one of three students of the RITCS School of Art who set about cleaning the public toilet on Brussels’ Anneessens Square, which locals said were dirty all the time.

Before cleaning the toilet, Slootmaekers, alongside fellow RITCS’ students Lukas Gevaert, and Aäron Roggeman visited the other ones in Brussels and discovered that this was a “massive problem affecting every public toilet in the city.”

“The fact that they are so unusable is even more of a problem during this crisis because all bars and restaurants are closed,” Roggeman explained, adding that, normally, people who are out and about and need the toilet “would be able to go to a café or restaurant, and use the toilet there.”

“But now these aren’t open, and these public toilets have started to play an even more important role,” Roggeman added.

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A Very Clear Problem

“It was already a very clear problem before last year, and we have been working on this project for more than one year, but this pandemic has confirmed that we were right in saying that this is a problem,” Brussels Alderman for Cleanliness, Zoubida Jellab explained to The Brussels Times. 

“The toilets are currently being cleaned twice a day, seven days a week, but we recognise that this is sometimes not enough, and the fact is that if they are dirty, people won’t use them,” she said.

Jellab, however, also acknowledges that a lack of cleanliness isn’t the only problem that needs addressing as long as many public bathrooms remain near unusable for women. This point was brought up by the students as well, who commented that “although the toilets are in general user-unfriendly, they are particularly uncomfortable for women.”

“In these public toilets, there isn’t even an actual toilet seat to sit on most of the time,” Slootmaekers said, adding that they added a toilet seat as part of their cleaning effort.

“We know that the public space remains unequal for men and women, and this cannot continue,” Jellab said, adding that, in the long term, the city is aiming to replace all urinals with cubicles in order to guarantee more comfort for women in public spaces.

As it stands Brussels has 29 urinals and 14 toilets across the city, mostly located in the city centre and to the North of Brussels. This number is set to increase in the next two years with the announcement of the installation of eight new toilets across the city, in response to this increased demand for toilets in public spaces.

The city has also been working on a project with the catering industry, shopkeepers, and cultural and public spaces, asking them to open up their toilets to the general public, which could provide an additional 50 toilets.

Jellab said that adding new toilets alone wouldn’t be enough, as a big element of keeping them clean and usable relies on respect: “We are making the new toilets more aesthetically pleasing in the hopes that people will respect them, and that they won’t damage them in the same way as the current restrooms,” she said.

“This is definitely a big step forward to improve the general hygiene of the city, as adding more public toilets means fewer people will just do their business in public spaces, and they will be less inclined to pay to use the toilets in bars when they open again,” said Slootmaekers.

“However, the city also needs to work on a system where the whole space of the toilet, not just the seat, are thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis. Cleaning the area surrounding the seat and the walls and the floors is also a vital part of guaranteeing hygiene, and that should not be forgotten,” he added.

Lauren Walker
The Brussels Times