In an attempt to reduce the cleaning cost. Amsterdam airport installed a picture of a fly in the urinals so that men can aim at it and avoid splashing the urine. It worked.

The picture of a fly in the urinals at Schiphol Airport has been touted as a simple, inexpensive way to reduce cleaning costs. Where does it come from, and how effective is it really?

There’s something of a surprise waiting at the bottom of the urinals in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport: an etched image of a fly.

At first glance, one might be forgiven for thinking it real. Then one notices that all the urinals have one, and the fly is always in the same position, just above the urinal drain and off to the left.

It turns out that men, in their urinal behaviour, cannot resist peeing on things, especially if they look as though they might wash away.

As any mother—or for that matter long-suffering wife—will tell you, men often lack a certain precision when aiming into the toilet bowl. This is bad enough at home, but in public conveniences such male carelessness can be multiplied many times over.

Urinal designers have been obsessed for decades with finding a solution to so-called ‘splashback’. There have been splashback screens that let urine in but not out, rubber floor mats, curiously shaped urinals in which the stream ricochets off concave walls into rather than out of the urinal, and ribbed urinals.

The urinal fly was introduced to Schiphol in the early 1990s, suggested by Jos van Bedaf, manager of the cleaning department. This photo was taken shortly before our photographer was arrested for taking pictures in the airport’s restrooms. (Photo: Peter Biľak)

In the men’s room a little psychology goes a long way towards keeping things clean.

But, according to Klaus Reichardt, who invented the waterless urinal and now runs a company that sells this technology, nothing works as effectively as getting men to aim in the right place.

‘Guys are simple-minded and love to play with their urine stream, so you put something in the toilet bowl and they’ll aim at that,’ says Reichardt. ‘It could be anything. I’ve seen a golf flag, a bee, a little tree. It just happens that at Schiphol it’s a fly.’

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It is Aad Kieboom who takes the credit for introducing the urinal fly into Schiphol Airport in the early 1990s, although he says the idea wasn’t his.

‘The idea came from a dear colleague of mine, Jos van Bedaf, manager of the cleaning department,’ says Kieboom, who at the time was in charge of terminal extensions and renovations. ‘It was such a neat idea that, once I was convinced, it was not difficult to get management on board.’

Van Bedaf himself got the idea from his time in the army in the 1960s, where he first came across small targets placed in the urinals. The choice of the fly is an interesting one. As Reichardt points out, it can conjure up images of something unsanitary—and indeed this is the first thought that enters the minds of many who encounter the Schiphol fly for the first time.

However, Mike Friedberger, product director for chinaware at American Standard, which supplies fly-engraved urinals to JFK Terminal 4, also owned by the Schiphol Group, believes there could be a very good reason for the fly.

‘If it’s something that you consciously don’t like, you’re more likely to pee on it,’ he says. ‘If they had put a pretty butterfly or ladybug there, men might not aim directly at it. On the other hand, if you used an ugly-looking spider or a cockroach, people might be afraid of it and not even stand there. A fly seems to be a compromise: something that is universally disliked, but that doesn’t elicit fear and make people not want to stand there.’

Even positioning a company logo at the bottom of the bowl would work, although Friedberger points out that companies probably would not want to encourage people to urinate on their trademark. The University of Louisville in Kentucky has been particularly inventive in this respect—placing the emblem of the rival University of Kentucky at the bottom of the urinal in some of their changing rooms.

The target in the bowl doesn’t even have to be an image, as Ortwin Reintjes, managing director of BR Waterless Solutions, which installs waterless urinals in Ireland, explains.

‘We don’t use the fly image in our urinals,’ he says. ‘However, if there is a problem with splashing, we advise our clients to place small a piece of wood—about the size of a cigarette butt—into the urinal. As men have the tendency to aim at the little piece of wood, the splashing is reduced significantly.’Schiphol may have started with the fly, but it now seems to be experimenting with other designs. A recent visit to the airport revealed golf flags in some of the urinals instead.

It is difficult to know for certain how much having a urinal target reduces cleaning needs. Some purveyors of this idea claim that it can reduce spillage by up to 80%, but Reichardt is sceptical. ‘As I have learnt over the past 25 years, bathroom behaviour can be really strange. Perhaps 60–70% might start to pee towards the fly; the others probably wouldn’t care so much. I’d say the reduction in spillage is probably more like 50%, but even so, that is still noticeable.’

Sphinx, the urinal manufacturer that provides the toilets for Schiphol, says that having the fly in the toilet represents savings in cleaning costs of 20% or more.

Schiphol is often cited as the source of studies done into spillage reduction, but it appears that no such studies have taken place. Kieboom says that he was certainly never aware of any scientific research done into the effects of the fly, and that the 80% figure was ‘very empirical’.

Urinals at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, the Netherlands’ main international airport, feature an etched image of a fly. According to Sphinx, the urinal manufacturer that provides the toilets for Schiphol, having the fly in the toilet represents savings in cleaning costs of 20% or more. (Photo: Peter Biľak)

‘A fly may have unsanitary connotations, but that is exactly why nobody feels guilty aiming at it!’ — Aad Kieboom

In terms of cost savings, Kieboom estimates that they are probably closer to 8%, assuming that the 80% spillage reduction estimate is correct.

‘The total public toilet space [that needs cleaning] can be divided into about 20% general space, 40% for the gentlemen’s and 40% for the ladies’,’ he says. ‘Of that 40% for the men\’s, only about 25% at most is reserved for urinals. The rest is for “closed” toilets, space for washing hands and general walking space to move around in. So for the urinals, you end up with only 10% of the total space of the public toilets. So in fact reducing spillage by 80% results in a saving of 8% of the total budget for cleaning public toilets.’

While the urinal fly has proved inspirational for countless people who first noticed it when travelling through Schiphol, the idea of giving men something to aim at is far older.

As early as 1976 Joel Kreiss, an inventor from New Jersey, registered a US patent for a bull’s-eye target to improve aim, noting that ‘parents, janitors, and others responsible for this cleanliness have often despaired [sic] the human male sloppiness of failing to direct urine into the proper receptacles’.

Even further back, in 1954, inventor Rolph Henoch registered a patent for a complex device suspended over the toilet, which served as a target for young boys who were being trained ‘in the practice of not wetting the floor around the toilet bowl’.

However, the most intriguing use of a urinal target is by the Victorians, dating back at least as far as the 1880s. Simon Kirby, owner and manager of Thomas Crapper, which manufactures period sanitary ware, is something of an expert on the use of toilets through the ages. Two old Victorian urinals stand outside his office door in Stratford-on-Avon, both embossed with a small bee.

A Victorian urinal target dating back at least as far as the 1880s features a bee. The Latin for bee is apis, a vulgar joke understandable to Victorian gentlemen, but almost certainly lost on 21st-century men. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Crapper & Co.)

‘The bee was put on as an unusually vulgar Victorian joke,’ he says. ‘The Latin for bee is apis. Victorian gentlemen would have been schooled in Latin and would have got this joke, which would be lost on us now. It’s quite rare for any humour to be applied to sanitary manufacturing, so I rather like this.’

Kieboom says that he was not previously aware of any of these ideas before putting forward the idea of the fly to Schiphol’s management. And nearly a quarter of a century after the first one being suggested, the idea still has the capacity to capture the popular imagination.

‘I worked for 31 years at Schiphol Airport,’ says Kieboom, ‘first in the operations department, then in charge of major projects like the Terminal Three building, a brand-new railway station incorporated within the terminal buildings, renovating Terminals One and Two and developing four new piers, being chairman of Schiphol’s fine arts committee. I did a lot for the JFK Terminal 4 project [in New York] and also a lot of other foreign projects. And how will I be mainly remembered on the Internet? By the fly in the urinals!’

Kieboom is intrigued by the hype that the story has generated. He says that the version that still makes him smile is the one reported in Iceland. Rather than flies, the targets in the urinals were pictures of Icelandic bankers. This was around 2008, shortly after the country’s three main commercial banks had collapsed.

Just about anything can be put at the bottom of the urinal to serve as a target, but psychologically it is much more effective to put something there that men want to pee on.

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