Belgian urban vacuum cleaner takes on world's litter

Michel Viatteau
 

It (Other OTC: ITGL - news) looks like the high-tech equipment used to capture ghosts in the "Ghostbusters" film, with its large nozzle and tank, but this urban vacuum cleaner's targets are more down-to-earth.

The Belgian appliance -- which has just hit the market in Poland, its 65th country -- sucks up empty cans and bottles, trash, dog droppings and whatever other sidewalk litter happens to be in its way.

"Even (Taiwan OTC: 6436.TWO - news) a full champagne bottle!" says inventor Christian Lange, who selected the moniker Glutton for the omnivore product that can also be seen sweeping the streets of Mecca and Paris's landmark Champs-Elysees.

What began as a small start-up out of a lawnmower shed 20 years ago has turned into a veritable success story, with Gluttons now roaming the streets of five continents.

The company has experienced 30 percent annual growth over the last six years in the absence of any serious competition, landing Lange a spot in the Belgian king's business entourage on a recent trip to Poland.

"It's a street sweeper's dream," says Slawomir Kaminski, the electric street cleaner's Polish distributor.

Following in the footsteps of his father, the owner of a garden equipment company, Lange founded his first firm in the sector at age 23.

But he quickly realised that the industry only thrived between March and June and was dead the rest of the year.

A marketing man with a love for car-racing -- go-karting at first, then Formula Ford racing -- he was first inspired by the leaf vacuum in his own gardening equipment sales catalogue to embark on his current adventure.

The idea for the Glutton was born in October 1994, the prototype was developed in March 1995 and deliveries began in June that same year.

- Big dog on a leash -

Showcased at a Belgian environmental fair, the Glutton was an instant hit. By 2007, revenue was 1.5 million euros ($1.7 million). This year it was 10 million euros.

The 20 or so showcases organised in Poland were well received, according to Kaminski, who said he'd already sold two appliances and hoped to sell up to 150 in the coming years.

"No matter the country, talks with the municipality buyers always take long -- of the order of three years," Lange told AFP.

The Glutton resembles a huge dog on a leash following his master -- a large hound that smells good to boot.

The air coming out of its filters is not only purer than the air entering, according to Lange, but it is also eucalyptus-scented.

Its big advantage is its large hose. Made (Paris: FR0010328302 - news) of carbon fibre, it is very light.

"We had to keep in mind the street sweeper who would use it for six hours straight," Lange says.

The hose's flexible nozzle means that even hard-to-reach corners can be cleaned out quite easily.

At first powered by a heat engine, the Glutton quickly became all-electric, a key turning point as it made the appliance as quiet as a mouse.

"We're not talking here about the level of noise," says Lange.

"But the level of silence."

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