The rise of upscale portable lavatories

The futuristic-looking Portal is an outdoor toilet that is meant to provide a pleasant — and sustainable — experience. Photo courtesy of Jupe.

Portable toilets with bluetooth stereo systems, hot and cold running water, LED lighting, hand sanitizer, air conditioning and plush rolls of paper are starting to pop up across the country, to the surprise (and relief) of outdoor bathroom-seekers.

Why it matters: The COVID-19 pandemic raised our hygiene standards and expectations — and highlighted the critical shortage of public restrooms in the U.S., particularly in cities.

Driving the news: A slew of cutely-named startups has entered the luxury portable-potty business, responding both to consumer demand for nicer options and the alarming closure of reliable pit stops (in restaurants, gas stations, etc.) during the pandemic.

  • A company called Jupe is building an outdoor toilet called the Portal that it bills as both a “work of art” and (eventually) a way to transform outdoor waste into fertilizer.
  • The Posh Privy, which rents out over-the-top bathroom trailers for events in California wine country, recently acquired Fancy Flush to satisfy growing demand.
  • D.C-based startup Throne is aiming to join Portland Loo in serving the municipal and corporate markets, as cities and companies seek cleaner and more spacious options.

Where it stands (or sits): Manufacturers of luxury portable toilets are backed up with orders until 2024.

  • Demand is coming from many fronts, from wedding and event planners seeking luxury trailers to social service agencies hoping to serve people experiencing homelessness.
  • “Since the pandemic, toilet standards have increased,” P.J. Blignault, managing director of a toilet rental and manufacturing company called EcoLoo, tells Axios. “People want a hand wash basin, and hygiene is more of an issue now than it used to be.”
  • His units are solar-powered and feature air freshener, bamboo toilet paper and hand towels.

The big picture: The $1.9 billion portable toilet market is dominated by giant companies that supply those familiar plastic stalls to construction sites, but the market for boutique, specialty and high-end alternatives is growing.

  • The $5,000 Portal, for instance, “features a full-size interior mirror, solar-powered LED lighting, and an always-on ventilation system,” Fast Company reports.
  • The Posh Privy rents out a wood-paneled trailer with windows and flower boxes that looks like a tiny house. “A lot of the comments are, ‘this is nicer than my bathroom at home,'” Brian Ferrell, the company co-owner, tells Axios.

  • “When you have somebody in a wedding dress, they don’t want to go into a dirty little bathroom,” he said.

The interior of a Throne Labs portable toilet. Photo courtesy of Throne Labs.

What’s new: Smart technology is just starting to hit the portable bathroom industry.

  • In some units, sensors indicate when a loo needs cleaning, and touchless doors unlock through a cellphone app, QR code or tap card.
  • These features “create accountability for users,” whose privileges could be revoked if they cause damage or a mess, says Jessica Heinzelman, co-founder and COO of Throne Labs. (Public restrooms are notoriously thrall to vandalism and arson.)
  • Throne’s units, which are ADA compliant and completely touchless, are meant to be integrated with “smart” technology in cities, parks, transit hubs and elsewhere.

What’s next: “We are envisioning these as building a network of publicly accessible Thrones across cities,” Heinzelman tells Axios.

  • “We want this to feel like a really nice bathroom that you are excited to use — we want people to be looking for Thrones.”

A Throne portable restroom.A Throne toilet in Mount Rainier, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Throne Labs.