Hours after Muse finish their headlining set on the opening day of Lollapalooza, Keith Kay will return to Grant Park. He’ll arrive at around 2 AM, like a housekeeper entering a just-vacated hotel room, to help make sure that the festival grounds are just as ready for the next 100,000 fans as they were for the first 100,000. Kay sees what most of us never will: the vendors prepping mountains of food and oceans of beer, the grounds crews picking up every crushed plastic cup and scrap of litter, the delivery trucks refueling the generators that power the refrigerators and stages. He’s here because it’s his job to supervise the cleanup of the only thing at Lollapalooza more disgusting than Borgore’s facial hair—the piss, shit, vomit, and whatever else that end up in the fest’s hundreds of porta-potties. “One of our guys found a six-foot-tall stuffed giraffe inside of a portable restroom—caught him by surprise,” he says. “I hope that found its way to a Dumpster.”
Kay is a senior account manager for Service Sanitation, a Chicagoland porta-potty rental company headquartered in Gary, Indiana. If you’ve seen a construction site, you’ve probably seen Service Sanitation’s distinctive azure porta-potties—though their ubiquity can make them seem just as brandless as the ultrageneric packaged food in Repo Man. (The six-pack whose cans just say beer, for instance.) Insofar as it’s possible for a big blue polyurethane box to blend into the background, they do.
I go to a lot of music festivals—not just the behemoths that take over our parks but also the street fests in neighborhoods around the city—and a couple years ago I started noticing that all the porta-potties seemed to come from Service Sanitation. Wherever I went, sooner or later I’d find myself swinging open one of those blue doors. Last year I decided to keep an informal tally, and in just a few weeks I saw the company’s porta-potties at Maifest in Lincoln Square, Do Division Street Fest, Printers Row Lit Fest, Remix Chicago in Logan Square, and the Pilsen Food Truck Social.
Chicagoans love throwing concerts outdoors in the summer, but with the notable exception of Pritzker Pavilion (which has permanent restrooms underground), pretty much every venue that hosts them has to hire a porta-potty company to take care of the dirty work. Service Sanitation doesn’t handle every single summertime event—National Portable Toilets, for example, worked last year’s Fiesta del Sol in Pilsen. But much of the outdoor music market is its turf.
The U.S. portable-restroom industry is just a little older than the music-festival industry. According to Jim Kneiszel, who edits the business-to-business magazine Portable Restroom Operator, the modern porta-potty was born on the west coast in the 1950s, when DIY entrepreneurs began building restrooms out of plywood and steel barrels for longshoremen and dockside building crews. (An industry nonprofit called the Portable Sanitation Association International, aka the PSAI, pushes the porta-potty’s origin back to World War II.) Massena “Andy” Gump, one of the legends of the industry, got into the game in the 1950s, after a Los Angeles ordinance required all construction sites to have porta-potties. Gump built his multimillion-dollar company by assembling porta-potties in his Mission Hills garage, and many other business owners took similar paths. “For ten or 15 years [people] were just making these things by hand out of wood,” Kneiszel says. “Then the industry just developed around providing equipment that was lighter and more sanitary and made more sense.”
A brief scene in the 1970 documentary Woodstock provides a snapshot of the porta-potty at an earlier stage in this development: Port-O-San employee Thomas Taggart cleans out a stall, armed with a pair of black rubber gloves, a bucket of soapy water, and a bulky suction hose attached to his truck. Woodstock supplied a mere 600 toilets for what turned out to be nearly 500,000 people, according to a 2009 article published by the nonprofit magazine Consumer Reports—to put that in perspective, Service Sanitation currently recommends one toilet per 100 people as a rule of thumb. It was more than crowds that flooded Max Yasgur’s farm in 1969.
After Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in late 1970, a group of porta-potty business owners launched the PSAI to provide independent guidance to their peers and potential customers. Karleen Kos, executive director of the PSAI, says almost 99 percent of U.S. residents have access to indoor plumbing, which means they mostly use porta-potties in one of three scenarios: on a worksite, in the aftermath of a natural disaster, or at a special event like a concert.
Kneiszel has noticed that the proliferation of large outdoor events has caused some companies to change their strategy. “A lot of these companies have turned around—they will tell me that 20 years ago it was 80 percent construction sites, where they’d just drop off one at a house,” he says. “Now some of them are the opposite: 80 percent event work and 20 percent construction work.” The growth in event work isn’t exclusively from concerts—outdoor weddings have created new demand for fancier portable restrooms—but for Service Sanitation, live music is the biggest piece of that pie. Kay oversees special events for the company, and he’s noticed more and more of it over the past five years. “Of the special-event market that we handle in Chicago, I would say approximately 50 percent of that is music related,” he says.
Service Sanitation is a regional business, but it’s so dominant here that its reputation extends beyond the midwest. “They’re one of the biggest in the U.S.,” Kneiszel says. According to Steve Dykstra, who left his job as the company’s marketing manager while I was researching this article, the early history of Service Sanitation is a bit hazy. Kay says the company was founded in 1967, but that’s as specific as anybody can get.
To explain Service Sanitation’s dominance, it’s more helpful to begin with its acquisition by waste and recycling company Homewood Disposal in 2001. At that point Service Sanitation began to grow quickly, in part by buying its competitors. Service Sanitation’s site lists more than a dozen businesses it’s purchased, many with dad-joke names such as Nature Calls and LepreCan. Today the company has branches in Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and (as of last month) Lafayette, Indiana. “To handle that larger service area, you need to have more of a corporate presence,” Dykstra says. “We offer a little bit better service to our customers, really trying to stress that—trying to provide cleaner toilets, faster efficiencies, GPS tracking.”
Empty Bottle Presents talent buyer Brent Heyl has been using Service Sanitation for the past couple years at two EBP events: the single-day festival Music Frozen Dancing and the Beyond the Gate series in Bohemian National Cemetery. (EBP also books Do Division, West Fest, and the Pilsen Food Truck Social, but Criterion Productions handles the porta-potties at those.) Heyl likes working with Service Sanitation because it’s such a low-maintentance relationship. “If the event is looking to be larger than what I initially anticipated, I’ve never had an issue increasing an order—they’ve been fast on response time,” he says. “It’s more expensive than I realized before I started doing it,” he says. “But it’s a necessary service.”
The fact that this necessary service costs more than most people expect is probably indirectly responsible for the knee-jerk revulsion the public feels toward porta-potties. “You will have contracting customers trying to ‘save money’ by making decisions that result in very unpleasant user conditions,” Kos says. “This is all too frequent, because the people who made the decision to ‘economize’ don’t ever personally use the portable restrooms, so they don’t experience firsthand the conditions that result from their choices.”
Part of Kos’s job with the PSAI is to help potential customers think clearly about something they’d rather not consider at all. “For most people who’ve ever had to use a portable toilet, it’s not their favorite thing in the world,” she says. “The units have a reputation as being gross and disgusting—and true, there are limitations to portable restrooms. But a lot of times it would not be a negative experience if the restroom units were supplied in adequate quantity, pumped with greater frequency, and the quality of cleaning ensured tidy, well-stocked cabins.”
The rule of thumb Kay follows—one porta-potty for every hundred attendees—is intended to help forestall emotionally scarring conditions like those on the second day of last year’s Pitchfork festival. (Waste Management was working that job, though the problem wasn’t necessarily its fault.) Service Sanitation posts signs on all its porta-potties with a 24-hour hotline number, but the responsibility for the toilets’ cleanliness remains in the hands of customers—if they don’t call that hotline, or if they don’t spend enough on upkeep, sooner or later somebody’s gonna end up sitting in pee.
A cautionary tale emerged in February of this year, when Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241 (which represents CTA employees) called a press conference to demand better restroom facilities. The CTA has a contract with Service Sanitation to provide porta-potties for its employees on routes with limited access to public restrooms, but the union says the CTA maintains those toilets so poorly that some drivers have resorted to wearing adult diapers.
The CTA is one of several city departments that have active contracts with Service Sanitation, and Kay has helped foster those connections since he joined the company in 2008. Because Service Sanitation is a private company, and because some of its partnerships require it to sign nondisclosure agreements, it’s difficult to know, say, the exact number of summer events it supplies with porta-potties. When it comes to its contracts with the city, though, much of that information remains on the record. In July 2011, Service Sanitation signed a City of Chicago vendor contract that covers multiple awards for rental and maintenance of porta-potties; as of May 12, 2017, the city had paid Service Sanitation $3,212,943 in a little less than six years. Not every event the company works is listed individually on the contract—Taste of Chicago is missing, oddly—but you can find the Air & Water Show, Blues Fest, Jazz Fest, and several parades. Kay says Service Sanitation’s peak events season begins Saint Patrick’s Day and ends just after Halloween. “December, January, I get to plug back into the wall and charge up the batteries,” he says.
Of course, Service Sanitation does plenty of business with private companies—Live Nation has a contract for bathroom trailers with running water at Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island, for instance. And Service Sanitation has earned enough goodwill that people will call it in a pinch. The day of the Cubs’ World Series championship parade, Kay wound up on a 1 AM conference call with representatives from the city and the Cubs (among others). They wanted hundreds of porta-potties for Grant Park and the parade route, so Kay got 25 drivers to pull ten-hour shifts on short notice. Fortunately, he had a few weeks’ notice to prepare the porta-potties at McCormick Place for Obama’s farewell speech.
Like the porta-potty industry, the modern music-festival industry is slowly but surely adapting to the needs of the people who are willing to spend all day watching music outdoors. Sometimes that means leaning into porta-potties’ bad reputation to sell something else. This year the Pitchfork Music Festival introduced the +Plus three-day pass, which costs more than twice as much as a general-admission pass and promises access to special amenities—including air-conditioned bathrooms.
Service Sanitation and its peers aren’t the only ones who’ve figured out that many people dread being at a music festival and realizing they need a bathroom. Companies that aren’t already in the business have devised branding opportunities by attempting to transform a necessary evil into an attraction in its own right. At the Life Is Beautiful fest last year in Las Vegas, Zappos debuted its “Porta Party,” a bathroom trailer tricked out with doodads and gimmicks that include a 40-inch TV, a selfie station, a photosensitive trigger that changes the lights in the room when you pee, and a machine that dispenses trinkets when you flush.
Service Sanitation doesn’t offer those kinds of perks—at least not yet—but it dominates the local market without them. When your business provides a necessity that most people wouldn’t want to deal with themselves even if they could, all you’ve usually got to do to keep a customer is avoid screwing up. In 2016, Kay says, Service Sanitation pumped 9,816,000 gallons of waste—enough to fill almost 15 Olympic-size pools—and used 1,598,176 rolls of toilet paper. “As soon as you have the event locked, you get the porta-potties and you get the stage—they’re kind of one and the same,” Heyl says. “You can’t have a band without a stage, and you can’t have people without porta-potties.” v