Disposable toilet bag for developing world

I just read an article in the New York Times about a Swedish inventor who has produced something that could save millions of lives and make the world a substantially better place. It’s a bag made of biodegradable plastic to collect human waste. Urea crystals lining the bag kill pathogens in the solid waste. Bury a bag in a field, in 2 to 4 weeks you have nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

The inventor has tested these bags in Kenya and India for a year and plans to go into mass production this summer, making bags for two to three cents each.

I’m not a camper, but it would seem that Westerners would buy these bags for camping waste disposal at a considerable mark-up if each of their bags bought ten for developing world free distribution.

The bag is called (brilliantly):

I guess the U.N. can send them billions of bags then.

What a sack of crap.

I’d hope so, but the economics of this thing make it appear that local governments could buy these and distribute them. They solve several problems at once:

A cheap source of fertilizer.
A cheap source of public sanitation.
Dramatic improvement in public health.

Compared to the cost of getting running water and sewage to all these places, the cost of nitrogen-rich fertilizer to the same area and the cost of treating all the diseases caused by exposure to contaminated drinking water, this is a wonderfully cheap solution.

I wonder if it would be possible to create manufacturing in the countries of most need. Pretty much, if they’re poor enough not to have public sanitation, they’re poor enough to need all the work they can get.

Added bonus, cheap labor.

In some countries that have vast slums and an industrial infrastructure like India and Brazil, sure. But it’s going to be difficult to achieve in many countries in Africa.

This will be welcome, but it may not solve the sanitation problem. In many slums, the flying toilet is common due to availability of plastic bags and the desire to get rid of the resulting crap. For the PeePoo to work, it will have to be available at virtually no cost, and some sort of infrastructure would be needed to collect the output. Actually I am pretty surprised that adhoc collection does not occur in the slums - there must be a market at some level for the collection of wastes. It certainly used to be the case, but maybe it is hard to get human-waste fertilizer into use these days.

I think this would be a big job for an NGO, setting up small localized toilet facilities using these bags, and providing central collection/distribution/end user market. But it would be a crappy task, and much of the reason for there being no infrastructure is because the local govts do not want to develop/stabilise slum areas - they would rather send in the bulldozers, displace the slum dwellers, flatten the slum and sell off the land to tax and bribe paying developers.


According to the article quoted in the OP, the “flying toilet” was in inventor’s inspiration. He saw them and thought “there must be some bag material we can use instead that will decompose and render the pathogens in feces harmless.”

The problem with collecting fertilizer is either having big, open piles of shit, stinking the place up, attracting flies and incubating decease, or you have a bigger problem of shit in non-biodegradable bags that someone would have to open and then dispose of the bags.

These bags are intended to be price-competitive with regular old plastic bags. Farmers could set up wagons to collect these bags - little bags of premium quality fertilizer. Compared to the cost of trucking in industrially produced fertilizer, it might make sense for local farmers to buy the bags and give them to people in the city to start, then supplying one replacement bag for each filled bag.

I don’t know anything about fertilizer prices, but two to three cents a pound for excellent quality fertilizer, delivered, seems pretty good.

I’m not a libertarian, but this really does seem like a job that could be most efficiently handled at the local level with a profit margin. Person who wants shit provides healthful efficient way to collect shit. Company that makes bags sells them at a profit. Slums have one less huge problem. Everyone benefits.

The NGOs would seem to be needed at the level they are best at - introducing the idea, getting bags into the country, selling the farmers and slum dwellers on it. But selling them the bags, even at a hugely discounted price, is one way to ensure that the end users value the bags.

According to the OP, this system has already been successfully tested for a year in India and Kenya.

Our church supports a medical clinic and primary school in a kenyan slum (we have the land for a hospital and have started building a secondary school). Both of these could provide openings for education and distribution of the bags, as well as maybe sponsoring the development of a collection/sales system for the full bags. I’ll certainly be raising the concept with the charity management team, and looking at sponsoring some trial bags.

I want to look at how these have worked out, too. And I agree that local buy-in is key - from surrounding farmers and the slum inhabitants themselves. If shit has a value, toilet provision becomes a profitable enterprise.


Cool! Keep us updated.

Feces and urine have always had value somewhere - the problem has always been collection and transportation.

Just a question, for those that know more than me…

While the bags kill pathogens, would somebody with a sufficiently unhealthy diet, or just general ill health also excrete other stuff that would be dangerous in fertiliser? I am thinking in terms of other elements?

I suppose if someone were ingesting absurd levels of lead, it could be excreted, and wouldn’t be broken down by the lining of this bag. Lower lead levels are, sadly, mostly bound up in the bone, and aren’t excreted at a high rate. (I don’t know how mercury is excreted, but it’s probably via feces or urine, and if so, it also wouldn’t be broken down by the bag.) Pesticides and herbicides are detectable in urine, although I don’t know if they’d be excreted at a level high enough that whatever survived the biodegradation, fertilizing, and plant growth would actually hurt someone, being that it’d be at vanishingly low levels in the end produce relative to what’s in conventionally grown produce anyway. Probably someone on radiation therapy ought not to use their waste products for fertilizer, but I doubt that this would be a big problem in the target populations.

People ‘in general ill health’ don’t excrete things that would make others sick aside from pathogens and chemicals that they themselves ingested. Ill health doesn’t, in of itself, make someone secrete unhealthy substances. An unhealthy diet that doesn’t contain toxic substances won’t make someone poop out toxic substances, either, although it can obviously be toxic for the pooper him/herself. What ‘other elements’ were you thinking of?

How long until someone tries to sell the advertising space?

Hey, if it gets bags into people’s hands, go for it! Ads for cell phones would be perfect - a lot of developing countries are skipping over land lines and going directly to cellular.

While that might work too, I think that if they put a paypal button on the official website and allowed people to simply buy them for free distribution to areas that need them, they’d sell a lot more. There are a lot more people who’d be willing to pony up $5 to buy 50 of these things to be donated than would ever buy them for personal use.

Well, I don’t know how many companies would seek to place their advertising somewhere where it’s going to get dumped on, literally.

But my attempts at satire usually get overtaken by reality in pretty short order. Invest your money accordingly.

In, not on (if you’re using it correctly).

Dunno. I could see feeling serious warm fuzzies for someone who provided these as a public service. I’ve never seen marketing types display a whole lot of shame about how they get their logo in front of people’s eyes.

Say Virgin decided to get into the cell market in Central Africa in a big way. They give pads of these bags away, so they are hanging by the door in every hut in every village. They would be ubiquitous very quickly.

Heck, I could see politicians and parties distribute these. One one hand, there is the cheap joke that “they’re all full of shit”, but on the other hand it would provide substantive proof of the politician or party’s sincere desire to make life better for their constituents.

Nothing in particular - asking more out of idle curiosity than I actually expected it to be any sort of problem

I wonder if they are going to use these materials to make fully recyclable disposable diapers?