By Henry Carpenter
If an astronaut has a bowel movement in space, Matt O’Crowley wants their loo paper of choice to be Tanki. The co-founder of this environmentally friendly toilet paper business doesn’t exactly stand on ceremony when revealing his ambitions. “Bums in space are just one of our targets!” Matt happily admits over Zoom. On a roll “A goal of ours is to stock the International Space Station.” Stellar ambitions these may be, but considering how far Tanki has come in a year and given the benefits of the paper which are hard to argue against, you wouldn’t bet against it. So what are the benefits which will sway people away from the tried, tested and trusted loo paper for this most private of procedures? Matt would point your attention towards the sewage systems of ships, holiday parks, and any loo which is off grid and with what he calls “wonky plumbing”. When these systems get blocked it is down to the glue used to bind the paper not breaking down. This is the point of Tanki – its two-ply paper contains no laminates or plastics, and therefore won’t clog the pipes. The affable and gregarious Matt explains all this over Zoom from his office in Atcham Business Park which he shares with business partner Mark Collins.
Yes, Tanki has been in existence for barely a year, and yes Matt made a complete career change as an officer with the merchant navy. But he entered the unusual world of loo rolls with his eyes wide open, and thoughts shaped by his experiences on the seas and in the harbours of far-flung lands. “I was an auditor and consultant, and have worked all over the world,” says Matt. “It was super-fun but a real problem on the ships has been the blockages of the sewage treatment systems. “The engineers were then exposed to other people’s waste. And then you think of those bins next to the loos in places like the Greek and Canary Islands whose waste systems can’t cope. Toilet paper contains glue, this makes the pipework sticky and when it gets sticky it gets blocked. “So, all we have done is simply take the glue and plastics out. Otherwise it looks and feels exactly the same as anything you’ll buy in a supermarket.” Is it as strong, I wonder? By way of a demonstration, Matt tears off a leaf of Tanki and pulls heartily on the two ends to a robust thud, staying perfectly intact. “You see, it’s as tight as a drum skin.” Matt’s first port of call to the Tanki market were those same ships of the merchant navy fleet. It wasn’t only his experience which came in handy, but his contacts too. “I went to the ships’ chandlers with the Tanki concept and asked if they would buy the product if I made it. I already had a market. “Another early audience was the farming industry – they were off grid and had their own sewage treatment systems.”
Another sector – the leisure industry – was also identified as a key market, particularly the likes of caravan parks whose biggest supplier, Nova Leisure, is one of Tanki’s more significant customers. But, of course, Coronavirus has kiboshed the maritime, tourism and leisure industries for the best part of a whole year. Despite these markets lying largely dormant, Tanki have still sold some nearly 60,000 rolls since launching in earnest last June. Sales have already come from Spain, Greece and Singapore and there’s a feeling within the Tanki team that the sky – or even outer space – really is the limit with its potential. As business partner Mark, a former IT manager, says: “When Matt first explained the business to me, I was cautiously looking for a catch – but there wasn’t one. “Every day is bringing a new opportunity and it’s very exciting.” “I’m keen to understand from Matt how a merchant navy officer could so suddenly jump ship, so to speak, into such a contrasting profession. “When the pandemic took hold I discovered I was ineligible for furlough cash,” explains Matt. “One day my loo blocked, and I suddenly remembered all the places in the world where a paper bin sits next to the lavatory due to the sewerage systems not being able to cope. “This led to thoughts about how the same problem exists on ships, yachts, caravans and houses with wonky plumbing that might be connected to septic tanks and sewerage treatment systems. Everything at that point pointed to smelly old tanks and Tanki was born.” Just like that? Surely he’d had some sort of experience, or connection with, making things? “I’m a bit of a hobbyist engineer,” admits Matt. “I was responsible for making the world’s smallest paddle steamer on the Isle of Wight. The first passenger was Alan Titchmarsh!” So really it was the identification of a need through his maritime experiences rather than a detailed knowledge of the loo roll industry which led Matt to forming Tanki. “Life on board ships is permanently dogged by the misery of blocked sewage systems. Not only are these blockages due in no small part to the glue in toilet paper, but when conventional paper does flush through, it is sending plastic directly into the ocean. “It may come as a surprise that the humble loo roll contains a lot more than just two or three sheets of very thin, biodegradable paper. “Typically, every roll of two-ply toilet paper contains 2.7g of lamination adhesive and softening agents that bond the sheets together. “It is not currently practical to prohibit users from flushing paper down the toilet, in the same way that some countries and cities have done, but these glues and nanoplastics cannot be filtered out and treated effectively in a sewage treatment plant. “Adhesives are the main cause of toilet tissue clogging up pipes, forming a slow moving sludge, leading to blocked pipework and drains and damage to treatment systems.” Tanki is actually made at a factory in Lancashire – for now, anyway. Matt explains that it is created using virgin pulp, a by-product of timber grown for housing from verified, sustainable and actively managed sources. Beneath Matt’s humour and general bonhomie – even over a Zoom call – there’s nothing light hearted about his environmental concerns. Tanki – unlike the glue-filled paper which clogs up the world’s sewerage systems or seas with material harmful to marine life – can be safely flushed into the ocean as it is designed to comply with maritime pollution regulations. “It’s estimated that 22,000 tonnes of lamination is leaked into the sea every year – that’s 160 blue whales or three million chihuahuas – and it doesn’t need to be like this.” This is a man originally from the Isle of Wight and who has led a peripatetic professional life working all over the world. So what brought him to Atcham? “I’d never been to Shropshire but I wanted to be somewhere central where I could get to most places in the country in a couple of hours.” He now has excellent access to holiday parks and their suppliers, and is in the thick of the agricultural market, while “working from an office where we look out at trees and fields which is lovely”. The fact that Tanki has come a long way in 12 months is undeniable – and this in spite of operating in a global pandemic which has had a drastic effect on a significant part of its client base. As well as securing sales which are projected to be well in excess of £1 million for the first full year of trading, Tanki scooped a Maritime UK Innovation Award within months of being born and received support from broadcasting giant ITV in a major ad campaign. “I’m proud we have been able to create and sustain an international business during the most challenging pandemic of the modern western world,” says Matt. “Starting a business is normally a frantic round of face-to-face networking, but that has not been a possibility for us – everything has been done remotely, which has meant putting huge amounts of trust in people and other businesses. Luckily for us, all of them have shown us enormous kindness and support. “It really is an exciting time for us, particularly with us hopefully emerging from a pandemic which has been holding us back. Now, the intention is to have Tanki in every boat, caravan, farmhouse and off-grid home in the UK.” He can add ‘every extraterrestrial lavatory’ to that list.