Decoding Design

Peepoo turns plastic bags into tools for healthcare, economic development

Peepoo turns plastic bags into tools for healthcare, economic development

Posting in Design

Peepoople has redesigned the ubiquitous plastic bag into a sanitation solution that can improve the health of slum dwellers -- and give some a way to rise out of poverty.

Nothing exemplifies societal inequalities better than the disparity between the sanitation infrastructure in developed nations and the complete lack thereof in slums across the world.

But living in high density without access to a toilet isn't just a human rights issue -- it's a major health threat to the 2.6 billion people around the world who literally don't have a pot to piss in. Lack of hygiene contributes to diarrheal diseases that claim the lives of 1.5 million poor children each year.

Even if there were suddenly huge resources available to bring better sanitation into slums overnight, lack of water in slum puts conventional flush toilets out of the running. That's why the Gates Foundation started tackling this problem this summer, announcing grants totally $3 million to designers who can make completely off-grid (no water, sewer or electricity) toilets.

But Anders Wilhelmson has been busy creating a solution to this vexing problem for years. It's called the Peepoo and it's little more than a plastic bag with a techy twist: it's compostable and contains a thin layer of urea.

The user simply squats over the bag to collect her excrement (or places the bag inside a bucket, using it like a chamber pot) and then ties the bag closed.

The urea hastens the breakdown of the urine and feces inside and pathogens inside the feces die off within 2-4 weeks. But that wouldn't matter if the bags were simply cast off into the makeshift landfills that surround slums, as feces-filled bags already are. The Peepoo bags would inevitably get torn open by rodents, or fall into rivers, and the hygiene problem would continue.

So what's as innovative as the bag's design is the business model that has grown up around it: Peepoo bags are sold for a small fee throughout slums and once filled, buyers drop them at collected points in exchange for a deposit that's one-third of the bag's cost, reports The New York Times.

Then, the bags are composted, and the sanitation problem is turned into a nutrient-rich product. Selling the bags and/or the compost can provide income.

The concept has been proven effective in a pilot project in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya, according to Dowser.

In the longer term, a more sustainable system will be needed, since the bags are cheap (three Kenyan Shillings, or about four cents, each) only because PeePoople subsidized them. Plus, what's to keep slum dwellers who don't care or can't afford this more sanitary approach from just filling an ordinary plastic bag and tossing it on the street or railroad tracks? Nothing but, it seems, societal pressure.

Still, it's an innovative, water-free solution and could become a tool not only for improving health conditions inside slums but also for helping to develop local economies.

Photo: Niklas Palmklint/Peepoople

[Via Treehugger]

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure