Ryan Fuller, shop foreman at Troiano Waste Services, cleans a portable toilet this month at the business’s South Portland headquarters. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The economic disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has come full circle.

A year ago it was toilet paper that was in short supply. Now, it’s porta-potties.

Those much-maligned plastic portable sanitation devices are in high demand and a crunch is coming as the weather warms and the need for outdoor facilities rises.

Porta-potties are ubiquitous in some settings. They’re needed on job sites for construction workers and are often required for outdoor festivals, carnivals and other events – most of which are expected to return this summer after being canceled last year.

That’s what has led to the high demand, and some ramifications of the pandemic are contributing to the short supply.

T.J. Troiano, whose family runs South Portland-based Troiano Waste Services, said his company is hampered by delays in an order for 100 new porta-potties while it’s also being squeezed by a worker shortage and longer construction times that keep porta-potties on building job sites for longer periods.

He said the labor shortage is hindering operations. The company needs workers to drive trucks to drop off porta-potties, to service them out in the field and to pick up those that are no longer needed and return them to the company for cleaning and reuse.

Troiano said the company ordered 100 new porta-potties in March and had expected that they would be delivered in a few weeks, as is usual. But the Indiana manufacturer has told him not to expect the order to be filled before Memorial Day, he said, creating a squeeze for the  company in getting porta-potties to customers.

Danny Schaver, marketing director for porta-potty maker PolyJohn, said higher demand, a shortage of plastic and a switch in focus for the company are all adding up to a backlog of orders.

Last year, there was high demand for portable, plastic sinks to help people maintain hand-washing protocols and PolyJohn shifted its focus to those, he said. The company’s output is typically 70 percent porta-potties and 30 percent portable sinks, but last year that ratio was reversed, he said.

This year, demand for portable sinks has fallen back to normal levels, while demand for porta-potties has grown, and the company has had to rework its manufacturing schedules to accommodate the change.

“We’ve been trying to catch up,” Schaver said. “We had to do a lot of flipping around as a country.”

Schaver said his company’s books are full through September for porta-potties, which generally start at around $600 each.

PolyJohn, which is based in Whiting, Indiana, just outside Chicago, was deemed an essential business and was able to continue to operate through much of the pandemic, Schaver said. It had to shut down, briefly, a couple of times due to COVID outbreaks, he said.

Demand for porta-potties nationally has been up this spring because of orders for outdoor markets and restaurants, which use porta-potties for customers who have been restricted to outdoor dining during the pandemic, he said.

Like Troiano, Schaver said the labor market is tight around Chicago, so PolyJohn has had to scramble to get factory workers to produce the porta-potties. An additional stumbling block, he said, is a worldwide shortage of plastic resin, exacerbated by severe weather in Texas and surrounding states, where most of the resin for the U.S. market is produced.

Troiano said his company faces challenges in part due to changing work rules that are lengthening construction schedules. Contractors are a mainstay of the porta-potty business because they need to provide sanitation for workers on a job site, and if the porta-potties are out a longer time, that limits the company’s ability to service other customers.

“The units aren’t turning and coming back to the yard as soon as they used to,” Troiano said. He added, ruefully, that a shortage of steel is reducing the number of dumpsters he can obtain, creating yet another headache for the business this year.


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