The surprisingly innovative portable-loo business
PORTABLE toilets have come a long way since Britain first imported them from America 25 years ago. The beech panelling, wraparound mirrors, plasma-screen televisions and sumptuous toiletries of some modern trailers would not be out of place in a posh hotel.
Construction workers were the earliest adopters of mobile serviced lavatories, which became standard issue on building sites in the mid-1990s. Before then some had no facilities, whereas others set up typically squalid immobile toilets. Industrial users still account for three-quarters of the 100,000-plus portable loos in the country.
But it is hard to make money out of builders’ bums. Construction slumped during the financial crisis, falling by another 5% in the first quarter of 2012 compared with the three months before. Rental fees have dropped as the cost of transport, chemicals, waste disposal and even loo paper has risen. A basic portable unit, which costs £500 ($785) to buy, can often be hired for £20-25 a week.
So most hire firms now serve the events market too. Leasing to music festivals, sporting events and private functions brings higher margins, notes Martin Murdoch of PS Consultancy, who advises the industry. But this business is erratic. The organisers of this summer’s Olympics have commandeered 1,500 toilet blocks at the busiest time of year, infuriating the people behind the Glastonbury music festival, who cancelled their event. Since transporting loos is so time-consuming and expensive, most outfits remain small and fairly local. Even specialist events firms need construction work to tide them through the winter.
The industry’s best hope now lies in technology. Most luxury and bog-standard loos are “recirculating”, meaning they are flushed with existing waste from the tank below, combined with a blue chemical compound. But vacuum toilets, akin to aeroplane ones, are gaining popularity. They use little water and no chemicals; since they don’t send waste whizzing round again, they are better for health. Because they are so pricey, they will not soon transform the business. A high-end trailer with a vacuum toilet currently costs around £40,000 compared with £25,000-£30,000 for a recirculating one. Only a few festivals and individual clients are willing to spend the extra pennies for them, says Nicky Warner of Loos for Do’s, a rental outfit.
Yet the technology has promise. Some humanitarian organisations are considering using vacuum toilets for crisis situations, because there is less waste to dispose of. Mobile loos may even inspire the next generation of fixed facilities—they use so much less water than normal lavatories that architects are getting interested in installing vacuum toilets in new buildings, says Nicky Brown of Flexiloos, a vacuum supplier and manufacturer. If they catch on, the bottom could fall out of the flush toilet market.
Source: The Economist, May 26 2012