The promotional blurb for Peepoobag, a new self-sanitizing, single-use, biodegradable container for human waste, is as dramatic as it is straightforward: “2.6 billion people just got their own toilet,” declares the website of Peepoople, a private Swedish company that developed the toilet-in-a-bag for the urban poor in developing countries. The number refers to how many people on this planet lack access to basic sanitation — not just a toilet but even a simple latrine. This deficiency leads to water contamination from feces, which contain viruses, bacteria, worms and parasites. One child in the world perishes every 15 seconds due to tainted water. Poor sanitation, says Camilla Wirseen, product manager for Peepoople, “is a silent emergency. People are dying.”
The Peepoobag was designed to provide a solution to the immediate need of relieving oneself; it’s also part of a longer-term, environmentally friendly value chain. Because most toilets are part of a sanitation infrastructure that requires water and huge financial investment, providing a quick, easy, safe and inexpensive way to go to the bathroom is a major advance over using the street. But the advantages don’t stop there. The narrow bag is made of high-performance bioplastic with a thin interior layer of gauze treated with urea, a non-hazardous chemical fertilizer that breaks down feces and urine into ammonia and carbonate. Within two to four weeks, the treated human waste can be used as fertilizer.
The idea for Peepoobag came from Anders Wilhelmson, a Swedish architect and architecture professor. Traveling around the world to study urban development, he frequently encountered the sanitation problem. At one point, he realized it could be addressed with existing ammonia-sanitation technology and by using a bag, which removes waste from the vicinity of people who can’t flush. Portable bags, Wilhelmson reasoned, would be particularly beneficial for women, who in many countries lack even the option of relieving themselves openly, although the practice is condoned for men. The Peepoo bag weighs less than 10 grams so is easily transported for use in any secluded environment. It is odor-free for at least 24 hours after use, allowing it to be stored in the immediate location before it's disposed.
Now that field-testing in Nairobi has proven the bag to be popular, the for-profit Peepoople company is seeking further investment to develop a production unit. One issue is the high cost of the bioplastic, which is made only in Sweden and Germany, driving up the price of a single bag to 4 euro cents. (Studies suggest that potential users are willing to pay only 2 euro cents.) Moreover, it’s important to organize the entire waste-disposal process before wider use is possible. “We say it’s a toilet for people but it’s also a system when it becomes fertilizer and is disposed of,” Wirseen explains, “and that chain has to be in place.”
The rather inelegant name, however, is likely to stay the same in whatever country the Peepoobag is used. “The name reflects the fact that we are all the same — we all do it,” Wirseen says, “whether we are rich or poor.”