NEW DELHI — A 2013 United Nations study pointedly noted that more people worldwide have mobile phones than access to basic sanitation, but a South African rotational molding company wants to help change that.
Enviro Options Holdings Ltd. has been making versions of its rotomolded polyethylene toilets, the Enviro Loo, for more than 20 years.
For most of that time, it’s been focused on problems of safe sanitation in its native land. But the last few years have seen business take off globally, as attention has grown on the major role poor sanitation plays in childhood deaths and poverty.
Since 2013, Enviro Options has expanded its staff from 30 to 150, and added more rotomolding capacity at its Johannesburg headquarters.
It’s currently setting up a joint venture to start manufacturing in Ghana and is busily scouting for partners in India, which it identifies as its biggest potential overseas market.
In an interview at a recent plastics conference in India, company executives credited work by governments, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and private groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with bringing more resources.
“You’re seeing the issue popping up all over the world,” said Rowan Snyman, international sales consultant for Enviro Holdings, at the Society for Asian Rotomoulding conference, held Feb. 1-2 in New Delhi.
The company says its plastic-bodied toilets shouldn’t be confused with the portable bathrooms common at public festivals and construction sites in the U.S.
The Enviro Loo works without water or chemicals, and the company says it’s odor-free, killing bacteria and rendering the waste safe without the need for sewer pipes or septic systems. The rotomolded tank, drying system and pipe can be housed in any structure.
Enviro Loo executives say their design creates internal air pressure that draws out smells, and they say plastics help it retain heat to dry out waste and keep the product cost-effective and simple enough to be made anywhere in the world.
“Rotomolding has always been our preferred technology,” said Managing Director Mark La Trobe.
A global health issue
Globally, the UN says poor sanitation has major links to childhood deaths, malnutrition and income disparity.
The 2013 UN report said that 6 billion of the 7 billion people in the world have mobile phones, but only 4.5 billion people have access to proper sanitation.
“More people worldwide have mobile phones than toilets,” the UN Children’s Fund said, noting that some progress has been made, with 1.8 billion people gaining access to better sanitation since 1990.
But UNICEF called for renewed efforts, and said that 1.1 billion people worldwide still have to defecate in the open. That practice is strongly linked to childhood diarrhea, the second-biggest killer of children in the developing world, taking the lives of 750,000 kids under five each year, the UN said.
“This is a problem that people do not like to talk about,” said UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, in a statement. “But it goes to the heart of ensuring good health, a clean environment and fundamental human dignity for billions of people — and achieving the Millennium Development Goals.”
UNICEF Deputy Director Martin Mogwanja linked the problem to personal safety and poverty.
“This can also improve the safety of women and girls, who are often targeted when they are alone outdoors,” he said. “And providing safe and private toilets may also help girls to stay in school which we know can increase their future earnings and help break the cycle of poverty.”
Enviro Options, which is a for-profit company, got its start more than 20 years ago when La Trobe’s father Brian developed his first portable toilet. The younger La Trobe said his father had careers as an automotive engineer and a dentist, and after retirement, served on a local city council in South Africa, where his portfolio was waste management.
“He wanted to improve the dignity of the toilet,” La Trobe said.
The company has made 100,000 rotomolded toilets since 1993, but most of its production has come in the last few years.
It made 20,000 in 2014, is targeting 30,000 this year, and hopes to have at least 500,000 installed by 2020, manufactured with partners worldwide, he said.
“The business really turned around in 2005 and it’s because of the Millennium Development Goals,” La Trobe said. “It’s really all about government funding.”
Two years ago, Enviro Options decided to seriously expand beyond South Africa. Snyman says he joined as the company’s first international representative a year ago.
In a speech at the Indian conference, he said the company is attracted by new Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Clean India” campaign, which generated a lot of attention at the conference for its emphasis on public infrastructure like building bathrooms.
“We are here for the Clean India campaign,” he told delegates. “The government is taking great steps to pursue a sanitation agenda.”
“India is seen as the biggest market for us, just because my inbox gets filled up every day with inquires about our toilets from India,” he told Plastics News.
The Enviro Loo is not intended to replace flush toilets. Snyman acknowledges people often prefer water toilets, but he said governments will not be able to build pipes and infrastructure fast enough “in our lifetime” to meet the needs.
Water toilets also use seven to 11 gallons of water with each flush, giving the Enviro Loo an edge in places with real water scarcity challenges.
It’s working on designs that use solar power and catch rainwater to let people wash their hands. Its toilets have also been sold to parks and water scarce locations in North America and Australia.
Enviro Loo executives say they believe they have the only commercial product that can meet a challenge laid down by the Gates Foundation, to develop a toilet that over several years can deliver sanitation at a cost of less than five cents per person per day, including long-term maintenance.
La Trobe said the company approaches its work with a combination of wanting to make a profit and contribute to society. It said in a company white paper that 100 children under five die each day in South Africa from diarrhea.
“With all the shareholders as well, key on their agenda is giving something back,” La Trobe said. “Yes, we’re a for-profit company but we have a ton of corporate social responsibility spending, and it’s time to give back.”