Portland-based Nature Commodes bets that composting restroom waste is the next trend in portable sanitation.


Randall Scott White hits on a lot of popular environmental concepts when he talks about his new portable sanitation company, Nature Commode, in Portland, Oregon. The former tech company executive and TED Talks speaker uses words like sustainability, organic and natural, and catchphrases like “We’re turning waste into an asset,” when he promotes the fledgling company he started with business partner Nicole Cousino.

Yet the business really harks back to the early days of portable sanitation. White is hand-building modular restrooms out of wooden panels, collecting waste in interchangeable “cartridges,” and asking users to dump “locally sourced” sawdust over their “humanure.” Then he transports the collected waste to a rural compost site where it’s transformed into a soil amendment.

If you come from a long line of portable restroom operators, this probably sounds familiar. Remember when industry pioneers like Andy Gump built their own restrooms out of plywood and collected the waste using 55-gallon steel drums cut in half? And do you recall grandma and grandpa talking about life on the farm so many years ago, when they used sawdust to knock down odors in the outhouse?

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While White says he is a portable sanitation pioneer promoting a service aimed at environmentally concerned event planners, he admits his new business plan is, in a way, rooted in days gone by.

“What’s old is new again. History repeats itself,” White says. “Guys, we’re not doing anything new here.”

FILLING A NICHE

But he says his service is hitting a niche of customers who want their events to carry a “green” theme. We’re talking about outdoor weddings or small music festivals where users appreciate the message he’s sending.

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“We’re blown away by the response we’ve received in the market, so we know we’re onto something big,” White says. “So far we’re the only ones crazy enough to do it.”

In 2011, White was giving a TED Talk (Technology, Entertainment and Design) in San Francisco and discussing what the U.S. could do in the event of a financial collapse. Part of the plan he laid out was converting human waste into an energy asset, fertilizer. A few years later, he met Cousino, who had the same vision and had started a portable sanitation company. The pair partnered on the project and now have more than 100 handmade restrooms, a composting site in Washington state and plans to keep growing.

You can see photos and details about their restrooms at the website www.naturecommode.com. They also explain their “fork-to-food” recycling effort.

“We’re wasting this stuff, folks,” White says. He aims to move portable restroom waste from a disposal cost to a “profit center” on the ledger for PROs. Of course, some in the industry have been land-spreading waste as a farm field soil amendment for generations, but White would rather remove as much of the flow as possible from municipal treatment plants and put it directly into the ground after composting.

HOTBED OF ENVIRONMENTALISM

“Our motivation is absolutely an environmental one,” he says. Treatment plants, according to White, “fail to filter out 50 percent of the pharmaceuticals, street drugs, medications, the bad stuff that can get into the mix in the porta-potty,” he says. “It’s getting out there in our oceans, food, soil web and watershed.”

Maybe his location in Portland, a hotbed of environmentalism, or the type of customers he’s approaching with the concept of Nature Commode, explain the tremendous feedback White says he’s received. But he thinks event customers, particularly, have been craving new alternatives to the standard portable restroom. He says event managers want to spread a green and sustainable message to their patrons.

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“People hiring porta-potties will start demanding this. We’ve created a market alternative. Capitalism loves choice and the natural porta-potty industry is born,” he says. “The fact of the matter is wastewater management is headed toward a beautiful renaissance.”

White said last fall’s election outcome is an indication that people want to reduce regulations (including those on handling wastewater), encourage entrepreneurship and use technology to find new ways to generate energy.

QUESTIONS REMAIN

You may share White’s enthusiasm for more sustainable ways to handle waste. But this effort is clearly in its infancy and there are more questions to be answered about building his model to a larger scale. A quick and safe way of handling the materials, from drop tank to finished fertilizer, would need to be developed for this idea to take off.

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Meanwhile, the portable sanitation industry is undergoing continual refinement and evolution, with better restrooms, more efficient trucks, better spill-prevention protocols and oversight. There’s a growing industry training infrastructure and more regulations requiring portable sanitation to be offered in far-flung construction, agricultural and event settings. Compared to those old wooden units and buckets of waste, new restrooms and service trucks are obviously more efficient tools and provide more sanitary solutions for the job at hand.

White realizes this isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition for PROs. Contractors may find it valuable to offer an option perceived as more environmentally friendly along with their present service. He says approaches like Nature Commodes are onto “the next recycling business, in my mind. Current providers of portable sanitation can capture that and market that ‘liquid gold.’”

What do you think? Is there a potential market for White’s message and methods in your area? Or do you think the more popular alternative to the standard restroom is the upscale restroom trailer for events and weddings? Or is super diversification the best answer; offering a little bit of everything to land more customers?

Share your thoughts with me at editor@promonthly.com.


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