It's the unexpected growth market, flush with potential and on many a thermoformer's mind.
There are many ways to make the products, including blow molding, injection molding and rotomolding. But thermoformers have the lion's share of the market that got a boost in 2005 from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita when the Federal Emergency Management Agency required 10,000-15,000 units.
``Once they clean up that mess, there are 15,000 toilets in that neck of the woods that are extra,'' Lance Hampel, chief executive officer of Hampel Corp. in Germantown, Wis., said in a recent telephone interview.
``Were we borrowing 2006 sales and making them in 2005? I hope not,'' he said. ``I don't think so. In essence, [the market] could go flat in 2006. But my consensus is that they're going so slow cleaning up [after] Katrina, those portable toilets will be in that area for five to six years.''
Ponder these facts for a moment. In France, there are about 10,000 portable toilets in use. Germany got started in the 1970s. But think about China: With a population of 1.3 billion, there are an estimated 200 units in use there. The portable restroom industry is mature in the United States, Germany and nearly so in England. But the rest of the world is open for new market growth, officials figure.
``As the rest of the world modernizes, there will be portable toilets added,'' Hampel said. ``It's a slow-go. But we do get our share, you know.''
Those are the key market dynamics on the minds of thermoformers who serve the growing portable toilet industry. Domestic needs notwithstanding, molders are looking at international markets and events that will drive demand. World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, required about 8,000 units. Beijing needs portable restrooms to host the 2008 Olympics.
According to the Portable Sanitation Association, based in Bloomington, Minn., that industry has developed into a $1.5 billion annual business.
``Obviously, the industry is growing,'' said Bill Carroll, executive director of the Portable Sanitation Association. ``We're requiring portable restrooms under law. It's a health and safety issue.''
The industry's growth in North America follows the performance of its market segments, including the construction market, both commercial and residential.
``If they are doing well, then we can normally expect to profit from their performance,'' Carroll said.
At PolyJohn Enterprises Corp. of Whiting, Ind., officials will add capacity in rotomolding, thermoforming and injection molding at sites in Orillia, Ontario, and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
``International is where we're seeing the largest growth,'' said Mike Adams, PolyJohn managing director. ``That's because Third World countries are embracing the idea of portable toilets as sanitation.''
His firm also is preparing for the upcoming hurricane season.
``We were sold out to capacity during the last storm,'' he said. ``We found that we were insufficient in what we could supply to meet the demand. We did what we could.''
Five Peaks Technology in Muskegon, Mich., has shifted its customer base from 80 percent automotive five years ago to a more diverse mix that includes gaining 20 percent of its sales from the portable restroom industry. As of September, the company no longer has any customers in automotive.
``It just became not a fun business any longer,'' said President Reg Adams.
As for the portable restroom industry, he said, ``Where we thought we would sell `x,' we have done more than six times that.''
There are indications that international firms are interested in tapping the U.S. market for portable toilets as well. Sebach Inc. set up shop in Tucker, Ga., three years ago. Officials at the Georgia office declined an interview request for this story. According to its Web site, the firm injection molds its products in Italy.
The industry, for all its efforts, still has to solve one conundrum.
``At this point, there is not an efficient reprocessing of portable restrooms,'' Hampel said. ``Someday I suspect there will be a day of reckoning.''