We Have Met the Enemy – Now What Do We Do?

The battle to reposition the portable sanitation industry’s image requires facing several hard truths

We Have Met the Enemy – Now What Do We Do?

Karleen Kos is executive director of the Portable Sanitation Association International. She may be reached at karleenk@psai.org or 952-854-8300.

“We have met the enemy and they are ours.” – Oliver Hazard Perry, commander of the American fleet at the Battle of Lake Erie

The young U.S. Navy had defeated the most storied fleet in the world. The victory came at a time of low morale in the country. Washington had been invaded and burned by the British. Battles had been waged and lost. People went about their daily lives, but they had all but given up hope the U.S. could be successful against Britain — an enemy they’d been fighting off and on for decades.

Then, Perry — with a less-than-perfect fleet and less-than-stellar sailors — went out and did something.

At the beginning, of course, no one knew if they’d win or lose. That wasn’t even the point. Until Perry showed up, made the best use of the imperfect resources at his disposal, and fought the battle, defeat was assured because the British already commanded the lake. It was the trying that mattered. It was the trying that actually made the difference. Winning was a bonus.

You are thinking, “What does any of this have to do with portable sanitation?”


As I write these words, the portable sanitation industry has been the subject of several very disheartening news stories. An operator in Wyoming has been fined $50,000 for illegal disposal over a period of years. A company in the Carolinas is pumping truckloads of blue-tinted portable sanitation waste out of a ditch where unknown persons have dumped it. An angry neighbor tipped a portable restroom onto the driveway of the person he blamed for its abandonment. These stories are just the tip of the iceberg. We know there’s a lot of chatter among end users about our industry and its services. What they are saying doesn’t usually include a lot of compliments.

So often I talk with hardworking people who lament the lack of respect for our industry. Most of the time they are grateful for what Portable Sanitation Association International is doing to address these issues, but they feel too busy, too underequipped, and sometimes too discouraged to make a difference personally. Most are quite sure they know who the bad actors are; no one thinks it is them.

This, of course, isn’t possible. The best companies sometimes wind up in a negative news story — just as Adm. Perry got hit with a few cannonballs — and the worst companies are, in effect, lighting the fuses for the ongoing barrage that hits everyone.

Deserved or not, negative stories further the narrative of the “icky” portable restroom. Bad action, inaction, busy-ness, and handwringing on the part of industry members all allow the enemy fleet of bad feelings to prevail. As Walt Kelly says in his famous Pogo cartoon, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” 

The PSAI has a comprehensive long-term plan for repositioning the image of the portable sanitation industry. There’s a role for everyone to play — operators, suppliers, contracting customers, end users, government agencies, the media, and the PSAI itself.


It’s going to take all of us, working together, to make this shift. It can be done. Over time, portable sanitation will evolve from being “icky” to a “trusted alternative.” The speed with which this happens, though, depends on how many industry members take a page from Adm. Perry’s book and how many are more like Pogo. Remember: It isn’t about having perfect resources, perfect people, or a perfect plan. It’s about working together and doing something rather than waiting for something to be done by others.

The PSAI will gather in Tampa, Florida, Nov. 14-17 for its annual Nuts and Bolts Educational Conference. I hope you will join us there to learn more about this industry repositioning effort and how you can be part of it. Visit www.psai.org/psai-nuts-bolts for details. I look forward to seeing you there. 


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