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Opinion

Letter to the Editor: Port-a-Potties Are Good, Actually

Apparently not everyone is revolted by the poop prisons.

by Karleen Kos; as told to Lauren Messman
Jun 25 2018, 6:39pm

Photo via Flickr user Erik Hansen.

Earlier this month, I wrote about something most reasonable people can agree is vile and revolting: the port-a-potty. In a recent viral video, a Colorado windstorm rocketed two skyward, providing a soothing visual for those of us who grow anxiously nauseous at the thought of having to use one.

And yet, it turns out that there are some people who don't find port-a-potties disgusting—a notion the executive director of the Portable Sanitation Association International, Karleen Kos, argued in response to the article. In an email, she wrote in favor of the port-a-potty and its broader public health benefits, conceding that while port-a-potties aren't always pleasant, they're oftentimes the only choice, and a whole lot better than forcing people to relieve themselves wherever they goddamn please.

I may never enjoy entering these smelly poop prisons, but Kos made some valuable points on why they're often necessary. America is more divided than ever right now, so in the spirit of offering a range of voices and opinions, we've decided to publish Kos's thoughtful and entertaining counterpoint in full, with her permission, below:

Hello Lauren,

I read your VICE post "Enjoy This Soothing Video of Port-a-Potties Being Ripped from the Earth" in which you refer to portable restrooms as "one of man’s most wretched creations." One look at my signature line and you know I’m going to have to push back on that characterization, right?

First, let me stipulate some things.

  • Yes, in very hot climates portable restrooms can also be hot. Imagine that.
  • Yes, if portable restrooms are not properly maintained, you will find unpleasant odors. This is also true of improperly maintained restrooms that are not portable. I was in one at a local box store just this past weekend, so I speak from recent field experience on this.
  • Yes, if you are prone to claustrophobia, being inside a portable restroom will not be your favorite pastime. Then again, you probably also avoid elevators, the bathrooms on airplanes, and coat closets.

Yes, the video of the airborne portable restroom is a thing to behold. I’ve watched it myself many times. I don’t get the same surge of schadenfreude from it that you do though—perhaps because I know some things that you are not (apparently) taking into account.

  1. Permanent restrooms are not always an option. Sometimes people are participating in a marathon where it is impractical to build enough restrooms for thousands of runners along a 26.2 mile course. Sometimes there has been a natural disaster and existing water supplies have been compromised. About one in three people on planet Earth live in areas where there is inadequate sanitation infrastructure. There are a lot of reasons that portable sanitation is required, and most are not going to go away quickly if ever. What would you have people do? Hold it?
  2. Remember, when there are no permanent restrooms around, the choices (other than holding it for infinity) are to use a portable unit or to take care of nature's call behind a tree or on a street. These options lead to lack of privacy, contamination of ground water, the spread of disease, and countless other bad results. You may not want to celebrate portable restrooms—which you have dubbed a "wretched invention"—but most people would not want to give up the bigger-picture benefits they provide either. Any bride who imagines the perfect outdoor wedding in the middle of a field knows what I am talking about here.

Portable sanitation providers don't expect anyone to gush with positive enthusiasm over using a portable restroom. They are realistic—and they strive to provide excellence even though most people aren't fond of using their service. Our Member companies do everything in their control to address the issues that make the experience unpleasant. For example, equipment innovations have led to units that flush, have hand washing sinks with running water available, and dramatically reduce or eliminate odors. In fact, there are luxury restroom trailers available that rival the washrooms in the fanciest hotels, complete with granite counter tops and air conditioning. However, portable sanitation companies don't control what equipment—or how much equipment—is rented by the park board or the event planner. They don't control how often people use the facilities, what sort of messes they make in them, or how often they are cleaned. As a point of fact, our industry has a Code of Excellence and standards that set out the minimums for each of these things—and we encourage our Members to refuse to serve customers who want to rent too few units or secure too little service to keep the portable facilities clean and pleasant.

In closing, Lauren, I—and whatever portable restroom operators placed the units during your lifetime that have prompted such derision in your article—regret that you haven’t had the kind of experiences that are possible in a well-chosen, well-placed portable restroom. As a person with access to countless gallons of virtual ink, I urge you to turn your disdain into action. Whenever you or someone you know is faced with a subpar portable restroom, directly contact whoever signed the contract to place those units and ask for something better. I am sure the portable restroom company would be glad to provide it.

Please feel free to contact me with questions or for further information. We are always glad to help grow understanding of the role portable restrooms play in the life a community and we welcome help in alerting the public about quality standards.

Best regards,

Karleen Kos, CAE
Executive Director
Portable Sanitation Association International

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