Cleaning up in the porta-potty business

Globe and Mail | Monday, September 04, 2023 | By Jason Kirby

There are few markers of the modern urban landscape as simultaneously ubiquitous and overlooked as the lowly porta-potty – at least until people need one.

On countless construction sites and at public events such as street festivals and concerts, portable toilets provide essential infrastructure that elicits both a sense of relief and apprehension. Their availability and state of cleanliness can make all the difference for workers and the general public alike.

As such, portable toilets have emerged at the centre of a struggle to improve working conditions in Canada’s construction industry and tackle the chronic labour shortages facing builders.

And that has helped raise the profile of the business of doing one’s business, a corner of the economy that is suddenly gaining the attention of investors and entrepreneurs.

In July, the Ontario government enacted workplace legislation that will increase the number of toilets required on construction sites and impose new rules regarding lighting, privacy and cleanliness. The changes also require that on worksites with five washrooms or more at least one must be for women only.

The new rules followed an inspection blitz by the Ministry of Labour targeting dirty washrooms on construction sites. Between April 1 and July 31, inspectors visited 5,300 projects and issued 441 hygiene violation orders to 354 sites.

On social media, construction workers had taken to sharing horrific photos of outhouses. “It’s just a big pile of feces. No flushing, no water, no soap, no paper, no nothing,” Mahee De Repentigny, an ironworker, said in a video that Labour Minister Monte McNaughton posted on Twitter earlier this year.

Unions representing construction workers have applauded the changes.

“It’s mind-boggling that on multimillion-dollar sites employers are hiring skilled workers, providing them the best tools and the best training, and yet they don’t offer clean washrooms with running water,” said Carmine Tiano, the director of occupational services with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, which had been pushing for the changes since before the pandemic.

Adding women-only washrooms is meant to boost Ontario’s effort to recruit more women into the construction industry, which has warned that labour shortages are forcing some developers to scale back projects. Currently, women account for just 11 per cent of the province’s roughly 600,000 construction workers, according to Statistics Canada.

“These changes are going to strengthen the sense of belonging for women on construction sites,” said Victoria Mancinelli, a spokeswoman for the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

The Ontario government said it has no way to track how many construction sites have added portable washrooms to meet its standards. But the new rules are likely to add to the high demand the outhouse business has enjoyed over the past three years.

When the pandemic hit and public events were limited, many in the industry expected rental activity to evaporate. The opposite happened. Factories, warehouses, construction sites and utilities scrambled to secure portable toilets for their employees.

Restaurants serving diners at outdoor tables snapped them up. So did many cities to put in parks – one of the few recreational activities left at the time – and at vaccination sites.

As the lockdowns lifted, a new wave of demand followed as people flocked back to outdoor concerts, festivals, weddings and other gatherings. Investors have taken notice – and they see an industry ripe for consolidation.

Earlier this year, Trivest Partners, a Miami-based private-equity firm with roughly US$4-billion in assets under management, formed Total Sanitation Services, a holding company headquartered in Woodstock, Ont., to buy porta-potty businesses across Canada. To date the company has made six acquisitions in Ontario and now has more than 13,000 portable washroom units that it rents to both the construction and event markets, plus more than 500 executive washroom trailers, which are typically rented for weddings and concerts, according to Total chief executive Robert McIntosh.

“This is a very fractionalized industry with a lot of ma and pa businesses that have been around for a lot of years, and their kids don’t want to do this,” Mr. McIntosh said. “There’s an opportunity for a professional company to make a sophisticated business out of an unsophisticated industry.”

The goal for Total is to become a one-stop porta-potty shop for major construction firms. It already has the scale to handle large events such as marathons, which can require hundreds of units along their routes, and massive viewing parties like the ones that formed at Maple Leaf Square in downtown Toronto for the Leafs’ playoff run. If the Leafs ever win the cup, Mr. McIntosh predicted, the entire portable toilet industry in Ontario would not have enough outhouses for the crowds.

Mr. McIntosh points out that the business is as much about the servicing and cleaning of the rental units as it is about the disposal of human waste. A $250 monthly rental comes with one weekly cleaning, but on very large construction sites, some units need to be emptied and cleaned twice a day.

“I don’t want to say portable sanitation is a recession-proof business, but it’s as close to a recession-proof industry as you can get outside of funeral homes,” he said.

The company is currently looking to expand into Western Canada, Mr. McIntosh said, and expects to announce new deals in the coming months.

As it happens, B.C. is in the midst of its own battle over the state of outhouses on construction sites, with unions doubling down on a campaign first launched in 2021 to pressure the province to improve washroom conditions. A new report from B.C. Building Trades says “very little has changed” since then and that plumbed, portable toilets with drainage and running water are still rare on worksites.

The situation improved during the pandemic, when construction was deemed an essential sector. Suddenly, every worksite had hand-washing stations, and toilets were cleaned more frequently. But Peter White, an ironworker in B.C.’s Lower Mainland for the past 14 years, said that once pandemic measures went away, so did the pristine loos.

What infuriates Mr. White even more is that, in his other job as a rigger on movie sets, he’s seen how that industry treats its crews, providing them with heated washroom trailers and running water. “There’s this complete lack of respect for the tradespeople who are building these places for people to live in and work in,” he said.

In an e-mail, the B.C. Labour Ministry said WorkSafeBC is working on new occupational health and safety guidelines and that Labour Minister Harry Bains has been meeting with union and industry representatives about “potential improvements to onsite washrooms that are both desired and feasible.”

As signs mount that the portapotty business is having a moment, entrepreneurs have also spotted an opportunity to disrupt the industry. Over the past two years, a handful of startups have debuted high-end outhouses.

Jupe, a San Francisco company, has begun selling a shimmering, spaceship-like toilet called the Portal, with mirrored glass doors and connectivity to Starlink’s satellite internet service. Prices range from US$5,000 up to US$11,000 for a model with “proprietary circular-waste transformation technology” to compost what users leave behind.

Meanwhile, a Washingtonbased startup called Throne Labs has pledged to “solve the public bathroom crisis” with accessible bathrooms equipped with sensors and mobile connectivity to monitor their use and cleanliness.

Mr. McIntosh said Total has also designed its own insulated, heated units designed for use during the winter construction season on high-rise projects.

As for the Ontario government’s clampdown and the fight in B.C. to upgrade outhouses, he said they’ve been a long time coming. As the economy slowed this year, the company watched as some construction projects cut costs by reducing the number of times toilets were being serviced.

The approach is short-sighted, he said, because workers will leave the construction site to use a restaurant washroom, which results in downtime. Or worse, they may quit altogether.

“Companies should use this as an advantage,” he said. “Having a really clean washroom on your construction site might just be enough to keep your people from leaving.”