Nov. 16, 2004 -- Get ready for some potty talk: Bathroom experts from 15 countries are gathering in Beijing for the World Toilet Summit in the hope of making every trip to a public restroom a more pleasurable experience.
Toilets play a big role in China's future. As the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing is trying to improve the state of its commodes. Most public toilets there are squat-style pits that scare the daylights out of Westerners. Visitors are warned to expect a lack of running water and to bring their own toilet paper.
Hoping to attract more tourists, the city has spent nearly $5 million in recent years. Among the projects: issuing a star-rating system for restrooms, so that visitors can plan bathroom breaks and avoid the worst.
"Toilets represent the level of development of a country or region,'' says Yu Debin, deputy director of Beijing's Municipal Bureau of Tourism.
Nearby Tianjin has launched a "Toilet Renovation Project" that aims to renovate 1 million local latrines and bring flushing, indoor comfort to rural residents.
Now, just as world leaders gather to discuss acceptable levels of pollution, toilet experts are gathering to bridge cultural gaps and answer one of the most basic questions of the human condition: What is a clean and decent bathroom?
Among the featured speeches at the fourth annual World Toilet Conference:
"The Position and Function of Public Toilets on City Projects and Construction," by Zhang Yue of the China Construction Department;
"Toilets -- A Tool of Social Change," by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak of India;
"Loo of the Year as a Marketing Tool," by Richard Chisnell of the British Toilet Association;
And, "Toilets as Tourism Attraction," by Seok-Nam Gang of the Korea Clean Toilet Association.
The three-day conference, which has been dubbed "World Toilet Day," begins Wednesday and ends Nov. 19. Need a reason to celebrate? Take a look at some of the more amazing new bathroom products, and some of the stranger trends in public restrooms.
1. Shy Bladders of America Unite!
If you think public restrooms in America stink, you're not alone. A new group, the North American Restroom Association, is fighting for better bathrooms -- and more of them.
"The truth is, our country is far behind when it comes to public bathroom rights," says NARA co-founder Steven Soifer, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland.
"In places like Japan, there are public groups that make sure there are cleaner, safer toilets in shopping centers, bus stations and airports. Why can't we have an advocate group like that in America to steer people away from nightmarish situations?"
NARA is planning to help host the 2006 World Toilet Summit in the United States, which would be the first time such a meeting would be held outside of Asia.
In the meantime, Soifer's organization is trying to build public support and corporate cooperation on its Web site (americanrestroom.org) with message boards so that Americans can rate the good and bad restrooms in their neighborhoods, in the hope of one day building a database of star-rated toilets open to the public.
"If you had a bad experience in a public restroom," he says, "we want to know."
2. Portable Toilet Door Handles
Here's a new travel accessory no germophobe should be without: the Wakmah portable door handle, the latest gizmo to minimize contact with unsavory public restrooms.
This lightweight plastic knob, which fits in your pocket, is equipped with a powerful suction cup to pull open a heavy door without your fingers touching a door handle where countless slobs may have laid their grimy hands.
Of course, when you and your Wakmah handle get home, you may want to strap on some rubber gloves, scrub that thing thoroughly and douse yourself with disinfectant.
3. Tomorrow's Toilet: TV Medicine Cabinets and Tanning Showers
Want to watch TV while you're brushing your teeth? Thanks to the magic of flat-screen technology, bathroom mirrors are now available with built-in TV screens -- just don't blame anyone at ABC if you cut yourself shaving while watching "Good Morning America."
Gracious Home, a high-end home store in New York City, began offering TV bathroom mirrors starting at $2,700 earlier this year. Where do you insert your DVDs? You may not want to know.
Don't worry if you find yourself spending more time in the bathroom. By the end of the year, Gracious Home plans to offer a device that will allow you to get a tan while you're taking a shower. Coppertone shampoo can't be too far off.
4. New Scale Tells You More Than 'You're Getting Fat'
Any lifelong dieter will tell you that bathroom scales lie. The scale says you're getting fatter, but you know you're just retaining water.
Now, you can kiss your excuses goodbye. The Tanita Corp. has just introduced a new line of bathroom scales, starting at under $100, which not only measure weight and body fat, but also body-water percentage.
The futuristic scales make calculations by sending a small electrical signal through your body, a process known as bioelectrical impedance.
By knowing your body-fat level, you'll be able to tell if you're replacing muscle mass for fat, even if you're not losing weight.
And by knowing your body's hydration level, you'll be able to tell if you're retaining water.
People who retain water tend to be cranky. So let's hope these scales are sturdy enough for those inevitable moments when they're chucked out the window by dieters who've run out of excuses.
5. Royal Flush: Stronger Toilets for More Luxurious Toilet Paper
America is on a never-ending quest for thicker, softer, multiple-ply toilet paper. Premium lines like Charmin Ultra are the fastest-growing segment of the bathroom paper industry.
You may think high-end TP -- twice as thick as other varieties -- would be an ecological disaster, not to mention the money consumers flush down the toilet. But bathroom industry experts argue otherwise.
According to Charmin's market research, the typical American uses 8.6 squares of toilet paper per bathroom visit and 57 squares a day. However, toilet paper consumption drops in half when a consumer switches to Ultra.
"A person knows it instinctively when they switch to a better toilet paper. With the extra thickness you just start using less," says Kenn Fischburg, president of Toiletpaperworld.com.
The trend toward thicker paper, however, has brought pressure on toilet manufacturers to bolster America's flushing power.
In recent years, the Environmental Protection Agency has demanded that toilets use less water, no more than 1.6 gallons per flush. That's not strong enough for some households, so industry leader Kohler Co. has come out with a line of toilets that give "booster flushes" when needed.
Kohler's Sterling Rockton model, introduced in May, retailing for $250, features a dual flushing system. Press one button for a "light" 0.8 gallon flush for liquid waste. Press the other button for a booming, extra-strength flush for solid waste. You may never have to flush twice again.
"We find that families with potty training kids really need the stronger flushing toilets because little kids get fascinated with the toilet and tend to throw toys and all sorts of things inside," says company spokeswoman Rebecca Barry.
It's a fascination that apparently lasts a lifetime, propelling each generation into a brave new world of toilet technology.
Buck Wolf is entertainment producerat ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files ispublished Tuesdays.