Ernest Beck | Projects


Peepoobag in situ

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.

Peepoobag in use

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.”

Posted in: Health + Safety, Product Design, Social Good

Comments [35]

Brilliant, elegant solution. Funny calling "poo-pee" elegant. Leave it to the Swedes. This seems like an ideal candidate for some grant writing to get some angels to swoop in with funding.
Sean Wilkinson

This seems like more of a camping-solution than sanitation for under-privileged societies. Aside from the chemical treatments and bio-undertones, this seems like an animal waste bag with fancy graphics on it. Is that really humane solution?

Cost effective? Yes. But does it really solve the problem? I doubt it.

If people are dying because of a lack of water/plumbing infrastructure than funding and implementation of such an infrastructure would be THE SOLUTION. Otherwise, throwing plastic bags at the poor people and touting it as innovative is just shameful.

a product designer

I agree. This is just demeaning. A bit less emphasis on the end of the world we're all gonna die from the heat and a bit more on getting water systems in place.

Poor? Just poop in the bag.

Nothing says, Hey, you're just a dog better.

If you want to bring the humanity of the proposal into question, I would personally prefer a contained, self-sanitizing, biodegradable bag over wallowing in open pits of steaming human excrement (call me crazy). It is an admittedly temporary solution, but it is a definite step in the right direction. I would assume (based on the availability of the internet) these negativities are coming from a member of modernized society; developing and third world countries are not afforded the luxury of just implementing massive infrastructure on that scale. Calling this proposal shameful is shameful in its own right...the peepoo bag is not the solution, it is a step towards the solution.

In "contribution" based design there tends to exist a Yin-Yang approach to modern issues. On one hand you have an issue that isn't aesthetically, socially, or possibly morally prepossessing. On the other you have seemingly brilliant solutions that are aesthetically pleasing and carry a weight of desired change about them.

When does aesthetic overcome ethical purpose?

I recognize that there are many issues at hand that are easily visible in struggling countries. I also believe that there needs to be sustainable, long-term solutions not just objects of beauty that create a commercial and social applause.

It feels as if some organizations just want a thumbs up from onlooking business and world markets to extend their own marketing strategies. Peepoople is a for profit organization and unfortunately that means that they are still trying to gain profit for themselves (regardless of their intentions).

I do not wish to discredit their efforts but rather propose a better way of approaching solutions. Solutions that last and leave the change in the hands of the countries that live in the struggle rather than upper to middle class foreigners trying to give formulaic results to problems that we merely glimpse. Lets find ways to invest money in third world government programs that can't market themselves. Why don't we give them the means to create change instead of taking the credit ourselves and elevating our current high-status egos?

Peepoo may be a great transition but as for long-term change it can not occur in mere bags, it has to have grander vision accomplished by those who do change, not just hear or see it. Infrastructure change comes from change in the hearts of people not in objects. If change isn't based off of the heart of the people then the aesthetic solutions of change are only an addition to the dark problems the world faces.
Matt Martin

Apparently neither "a product designer" nor "vanderleun" have any idea that there are regions in third world/developing nations that have absolutely no funding for appropriate sanitation infrastructure—be it because of how remote these places are, a corrupt government or that there simply isn't any money. Such places are at great risk of cholera epidemics and other highly infectious diseases, which the PeePoo bags would be a great solution to keep under control and make for a cleaner living environment.

And, yes, I strongly agree that it is unfortunate that we should have to hand impoverished peoples plastic bags to dispose of their bodily
waste. In a perfect world everyone would have the right to basic sanitation, appropriate shelter and food on the table. But until we become that perfect world the PeePoo bag is a step closer to better quality of life for them.

Kudos to Anders Wilhelmson for being so insightful.

Matt Martin brings up an excellent point: "that there needs to be sustainable, long-term solutions not just objects of beauty that create a commercial and social applause." Indeed there are. One example is water.org, which establishes local partners in developing countries to build wells, latrines, and teach communities about water and sanitation issues that relate to the needs of each particular community. Ideas like the PEEPOOBAG, while well-intentioned, are first-world solutions to third-world problems. These bags are better suited for filling with crap from my pure bred dog than serving as a long-term solution for fertilizing a garden.

While the creators recognize that sanitation is intimately related to clean water, the fatuously named PEEPOOBAG addresses only one issue and acts as a band-aid, if that.

Ernest Beck writes that the PEEPOOBAG "would be particularly beneficial for women, who in many countries lack even the option of relieving themselves openly." While privacy is important, it hardly seems like the primary concern for women in many places who, according to water.org, are disproportionately responsible for collecting water (often from distant, polluted sources) and for 60-80% of food production. When women don't have to worry about where their water is coming from or whether their children are sick from water-related diseases, they are able to pursue entrepreneurial activities in their communities.

Organizations that take an integrated approach to bringing safe water to poor people are more effective than one that only addresses one part of the problem. It would serve Anders Wilhemson well to take a look at the amazing groups out there that give communities access to, ownership of, and the tools to repair wells, latrines, and teach hygiene education, while working with local, innovative non-profits.

We will benefit greatly if design can teach, empower, and delight, rather than do whatever this dazzle ship is.
Emily Craig

company trying to solve an infrastructure problem with a disposable product that must be purchased again and again at a price that generates a profit for the company? Doesn't makes sense to me.
Adam Wishneusky

As a designer who's worked with human rights projects, i'm a bit embarrassed by this offensive project. You're handing a poor person a baggie and treating them like a dog, while making fun of them and their living conditions with derogatory, self-serving branding.

These under privileged people aren't living in anything close to civilized conditions. They need long term, dignified solutions more than they need pretentious typography on the side of a branded product that is clearly meant to advertise itself and generate money while masquerading as some sort of human rights solution. Not to mention the irony of trying to solve a hygiene problem by creating portable septic tanks that will most probably become the newest form of litter to decorate the local landscape. A bit of common sense please.

These kinds of projects make the design community look bad. It says that we are incapable of relating to anyone or anything that can't afford a morning latte and $300 smart phone. It says that we solve problems with self serving aesthetics and are more interested in getting press than actually helping people.


How does one convince people who don’t even know what a microbe is to use Peepoobags? Are Peepoobags really going to take off in the places where disease is blamed on witchcraft, demons, or spirits?

So assuming that these could ever be made cost effective, how does one handle the logistics of distribution? Are there going to be UN trucks and helicopters transporting palettes of these bags into rural Africa and the jungles of Southeast Asia, and replenishing the supply every six months? What happens to people who have got used to depending on the bags when the supply runs out?

Peepoo bags are a good idea, but education and infrastructure development still seem like a more practical use of resources.
James Puckett

I don't think its offensive at all, maybe in western cultures we wouldn't dispose of feces in a bag but elsewhere, people are using the street as a toilet in public, this is a practical solution to dispose of human waste in a safe way and to see it as offensive is ignorant.

that said, a marketing campaign geared towards third-world countries is completely unethical and if you expect people to pay for these bags in place of food and water....?

Withdraw all aid and let the developing world fend for itself. Alternatively, Market a product where you want, and if people in these countries feel insulted they won't buy it, then the entrepreneur will suffer a loss as punishment.

We bend down and pick up the shit the dog has trailed for us. Yes that is much less degrading than sanitary pooing.

Toilets aren't even the best posture for the deed.

It's impossible for those living in comfort to understand the day-to-day life in abject poverty. This idea might be a good one. Peepoo's heart is in the right place (?).

I wonder about the ramifications of using these bags for other things, to collect and store water or food? People get creative when they are poor and hungry.

And what will a family of 6 or twelve would do with all those bags? The article mentions disposal? It seems that any of our ideas depend on some kind of infastructure.

Still it would be an incremental improvement.
Steven Lee Stinnett

My first reaction was that this was a step in the right direction. Then after reading the comments, I realized once again how difficult it is to properly evaluate our best intentions when it comes to solving other peoples' problems. If we think we've got the problem of waste solved for ourselves, it is simple to think the next step is to help the developing world. But what we do with our own waste in big cities and small towns all over North America, for example, makes us cringe when we hear the facts. When we realize that we rely on a resource (water) which has been undervalued and mismanaged, then we will see that we need to come up with some long-term solutions for our own communities. Which is not to say that the Peepoo bag has no merit whatsoever, because I still think it does. Thanks to Design Observer for bringing this story to us.
Kasia Drewniak

Its not probable that anyone blogging on this site could say they have experienced true hardship to the extent that those in third world countries have. Saying that relieving yourself in a bag is inhumane is a very Western idea, besides that using anything other than a toilet to remove the unsightly waste is taken as purely unsanitary and brutish in that thought process. Most Western culture doesn't even think about the amount of water it takes to flush our ammonia down the drain...it takes sometimes gallons to do this while other nations don't have any to even drink. It is true that Peepoo is not glamorous but it does assist in some ways and shouldn't be discredited fully due to humanity's take on the ugly side of the human condition.

As for other long-term methods to solving the problems faced I propose research into other methods. If you have some time here is one organization that is doing just that:

Matt Martin

This reminds me of Binyavanga Wainaina's article on the One Laptop per Child project .

In this excerpt he is talking about the wind-up Freeplay radio, but the observation applies to this product as well:

"But the enthusiasts of the windup radio suffer not from poverty or lack of information but from wealth, vague guilt, and too much information. They are the only people who can find nobility in a product that communicates to its intended owner: you are fucked."
Darko Svitek

Similar to what Darko Svitek brings up - I find it extremely disturbing that some out of touch yutz at MIT can even begin to think something like "one laptop per child" is anywhere close to being as important as the very BASICS of civilization that 2 BILLION people are lacking.

I also find the "workflow" after the bag is filled to be mostly unexplained. Are these filled bags going to be carried by the "filler" to some common point where they would be left? Would they be just dropped in the street where they would be crushed, run over, and cut open? Is anyone going to be willing to carry their own bag of warm remnants for some unknown time period until it can be disposed? How does the bag end up on a field for fertilizer? Do the field workers show up at some distribution point and carry hundreds of someone else's crap bags out into the field?

The problem is vast and mostly intractable. Some credit is due, at least someone is trying to make it better, but there is a long ways to go here.
Jeff Bach

“a marketing campaign geared towards third-world countries is completely unethical and if you expect people to pay for these bags in place of food and water....?”

There’s not much point in a long term not-for-profit sanitation project like this. Cholera epidemics kill lots of people very quickly. One can’t ethically make basic sanitation dependent on foreign aid because as soon as the cause celebre changes people who became reliant on Peepoobags DIE. And just handing them out eliminates any incentive to create a sustainable sanitation system not dependent on foreign aid.

If designers really want to concern themselves with sustainability, they’re going to have to develop business models that can sustain themselves. Business infrastructures are far more sustainable than handouts from foreigners who will inevitably move on to the latest popular cancer or immunodeficiancy.
James Puckett

Seems more of a well meanining makeshift idea than a long term solution - hopefully it will help though.

If only by managing to highlight and create a debate around this issue, the peepoo is already a successful product.

This is not a real solution at all. Its just more waste that will be added to the top of the heap! If we are truly going to help these countries we need to educate them more about contraception to cease the increase in their population and impose sanctions on their leaders to erase the violence against their own people. This just stinks of someone trying to make a quick buck and move on.

That's a nice way to appear like you're doing something while, in fact, you're doing nothing at all - and earning a profit from it, as well. Well done. You win at capitalism. Fail in humanity, but hey, can't have it all.

this pee-poo bag concept should be junked in favor of a program designed to educate communities - rather than cultivate dependence on euros and brands,

for example (as featured in the new york times and national geographic):

@James Puckett And just handing them out eliminates any incentive to create a sustainable sanitation system not dependent on foreign aid. If designers really want to concern themselves with sustainability, they’re going to have to develop business models that can sustain themselves.

Do you think if we make the grievous error of letting people defecate in bags for free (!), any incentive to develop waste management and sanitation systems will disappear? That's like saying: "I know if I could defecate in a bag and not worry about funding it, I would lose the incentive to enact political and structural changes necessary to produce a large-scale waste management system." It's not like people who live in dirty water don't have sufficient incentives to change things. They already have the incentive, what they lack is the political capital necessary to effect that reform. I think it has little to do with finding a 'sustainable business model'. The first world has sanitation systems because of public health measures dependent on strong democratic states, not because American Standard came up with a decent business model.

In other words, I certainly hope the peepoobag (ugh) helps people, but there's something a bit too optimistic about it all.

When I first startyed reading this article, my generally accurate BS meter began to twitch - surely this isn't real? What a demeaning concept.

At the end of the article I chided myself for being too western-narrow-minded: "Perhaps this really could help some folks take a step forward."

After reading the comments, I flipped again: "Nope, this is not a solution. The problem of what to do with waste has to be part of a cycle that is natural and home grown."

Frontier living must have been hard, but here we are. Of course, even we didn't really solve the *whole* problem.

Then I thought "people have been taking dumps for millenia, what's changed? Why is this so intractable? Is it the sheer number of us? Is it really pure pedagogy?

This reminds me of the case against genetically modified crops sold to developing nations. The reality on the ground could well be "@#$% the genepool, give me a bowl of rice so I can work and live another day!"


What ever happened to digging a hole in the ground?

but seriously.. this only makes sense in heavily dense areas that have no proper sanitation or waste system.

I lived in the country side back home and always just dug a hole at our farm.. but not everyone have that so this makes sense.

BUT. what if they don't have a garden? no space to dispose of the bags? no one to pick them up to dispose of them? would the bags cause a new problem to face?

Nonetheless it helps in SPECIFIC places... and not just Africa

; )
Ngqabutho Zondo

Has the testing included the use of the bags a s fertilizer? Hoe does this work? Do youstore the bags in the back of the shed? Did they use a collection system?
Pressly Gilbert

I think its an excellent step. The fact is people who live in densely populated, poor, urban areas (not just in Africa but in most of the developing world) don't have the choice to just dig a hole in the ground. In Kibera, where I worked for some time, many people are already using non-biodegradable plastic bags as "flying toilets" which presents a lot of environmental and human dilemmas - heaven forbid you're walking to work when your neighbour decides to empty his flying toilet! Sure its not the perfect solution but what is? Doing nothing until we find one? As long as we acknowledge it as temporary and imperfect, I think one step forward is better than standing still. I would only urge the governments in these countries to foot the cost of providing these bags for people, seeing as its their fault that the urban poor are going without proper sanitation in the first place.

"I would only urge the governments in these countries to foot the cost of providing these bags for people, seeing as its their fault that the urban poor are going without proper sanitation in the first place."


I would agree that someone should front the cost of the bags if they are to be implemented. For people in the conditions that they are looking to distribute the bags they may be better off putting their saved money towards temporary life sustaining items such as food. How much money can they afford to take care of their own feces when they are strapped to find sustenance?

The one question I do have in regards to the quote above is whether or not it is completely the government's fault in those countries. It is true that they have not aided the cause in any way shape or form and in some instances have actually dismantled infrastructure but I don't know if its complete grounds for stating they should front all the cost of the bags. If the PeePoo organization is wanting to help maybe they should front the cost rather than seeking profit. Our world crumbles not because of the existing wrongs but from the created evils that come as a result of "good" people unwilling to do anything that does not create gain for themselves.

"The greatest impediment to an ecological design revolution is not, however, technological or scientific, but rather human."

-David Orr, The Nature of Design

One last thought to ponder...even if it was totally those government's faults, do you believe that they will want to front the money after all that they have taken; all they have destroyed?
Matt Martin

So if the bag needs no water for it's use, just washing hands afterwards, with what should you wipe your ass then? with your hand? And wait, no water to wash your hands. Darn. We're all back to square one again.

When all the people this bag is meant for have proper sanitation, then will be the time to denigrate it as being dehumanizing and shameful. In the mean time, where do you suggest folks in third world slums should go to the bathroom?

I dont' think that the dream of a toilet hooked up to a proper sewage system for every household is going happen anytime soon.

this is a solution to Mr. Whilhelmson's own white, European, Volvo driving, colonial sense of disgust at the sight of human waste during his travels, which occurs as the latest stage in the lack of sanitation chain. Some intellectual effort might lead him to ponder about the social process which resulted in his own discomfort. And then, perhaps, he could use his design talents to address what really matters.
Rony S.

this pee poo bag is a great invention especially if you go camping and you need the toilet in the middle of the night. i would stock on them but the problem would be just standing beacuse i am already used to sitting on the toilet seat.
hlengiwe dhlamini

This whole debate is freaking hilarious.

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