When plastic bags save lives

Sensemaking / When plastic bags save lives

Biodegradable bags offer a cheap and simple sanitation solution for slums and disaster areas.

01 Nov 2011

Biodegradable bags offer a cheap and simple sanitation solution for slums and disaster areas.

Plastic bags are normally much derided by environmentalists, but they could be about to save millions of lives every year. The Peepoo bag, invented by Swedish professor Anders Wilhelmson, allows for the safe disposal of human waste in areas without toilets or easy access to running water. The bag is manufactured by a company set up for the purpose, Peepoople.

The technology itself is remarkably simple: a biodegradable plastic bag with a thin lining coated in urea. The urea breaks down pathogens found in both urine and faeces, and after about four weeks the contents of the bag – known as ‘humanure’ – can be used as a rich nitrogen fertiliser.

After extensive tests in Kenya and Bangladesh, the bags are now being sold by a network of local women micro-entrepreneurs in the Kibera slum district of Nairobi, where small scale manufacturing of the bags is also under way. The Peepoos cost four Kenyan shillings each (about 3p), with one shilling refunded if the bag is dropped off at a collection point. Peepoople is also exploring the possibility of local entrepreneurs collecting and selling the ‘humanure’, too.

Currently, nearly 40% of the world’s population is without basic access to sanitation – a prime cause of diarrohea, which is the leading killer of children under five in developing countries. The UK Department for International Development is looking at the Peepoo bag as one of a number of solutions, but says there are still questions to answer. Stephen O’Brien, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, says they are working to “understand the context this product operates in, people’s attitudes to using it, and seeing whether it results in an overall improvement in people’s health and its impact on the wider environment.”

After successes in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and ongoing work in Kenya, Peepoople are preparing to launch high scale production to serve the emergency aid sector in 2012. – Sarah Lewis-Hammond

Photo: Peepoople

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