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Can this piece of plastic save lives?

Peepoople’s Swedish founder Anders Wilhelmson has come up with a single-use toilet that not only prevents disease but turns into valuable fertiliser

Can this piece of plastic save lives?

Text by Photo by Erik Olsson

What’s the big idea?
Peepoo is a portable, single-use toilet that’s lightweight, self-sanitising, fully biodegradable and doesn’t give off a smell for 24 hours. Once used, it can be used as a fertiliser by farmers.

How new and important could this be?
It’s definitely important – today, more than 2.6 billion people around the world lack access to basic sanitation, and one child dies every 15 seconds due to contaminated water from human excreta. Up to half of all deaths in emergency and refugee camps are caused by diarrhoeal diseases, including cholera. Peepoo is the first sanitary and biodegradable toilet – many people in slums across the world use plastic bags, which has disastrous environmental and health implications.

How did this start?
In 2005, Anders Wilhelmson, an architect and professor at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology, was starting a 10-year urban development project. He took a group of students to Mumbai and remembers a meeting with a group of women living in a slum. “They confronted us and said that they had houses, electricity, TVs – but they couldn’t take care of their personal hygiene. It seemed backwards, but if you don’t have water you can’t flush a toilet, and it’s difficult to get rid of faeces.” 

So what happened next?
Wilhelmson brought a research team together, among them researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and German chemical company BASF. They came up with a plastic bag that kills harmful bacteria and other pathogens, and is made of biopolymers that will eventually destroy the used product. As Wilhelmson says of the toilet, which can be placed over a bucket or seat, “It looks simple, but it’s very high-tech.” Peepoople was created in December 2006, and – after testing across Kenya and Bangladesh – started semi-manual production in late 2008, funded by private investors including Wilhelmson, who’s still the main owner.

So what stage is Peepoople at today?
Peepoople has a large pilot project in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where 6,000 people a day buy Peepoos for about 3 cents, before selling them back for 1 cent to be used as fertiliser; in the same slum, more than 10,000 schoolchildren use Peepoos. But the main focus is on disaster areas, which take up most of the 60,000 Peepoos produced a day – it has provided toilets following flooding in Pakistan, and earthquakes in Haiti and Christchurch, New Zealand. The main preoccupation is currently Syrian refugee camps.

What’s the plan for the future?
The company has just opened a new factory, which can produce half a million Peepoos a day. The eventual aim is to provide 150 million each day. “Every year there are 100 million flood victims across the world, and at the moment 42 million people live in refugee camps,” says Wilhelmson. “We want to expand to different slums. Eventually, we want to franchise out the idea, almost like Tetra Pak.”

So it’s a business rather than an NGO?
Yes, albeit a very benevolent one. According to Wilhelmson, “The rise of microfinance in 2006 showed the benefits of seeing the poor as consumers. We have to be profitable to develop scaling and grow.” 

It sounds ambitious…
Yes, but as Wilhelmson says, “You don’t invest €3-4 million (NOK32.4 million) in a product that hasn’t been tested and which you don’t believe in. There will be emergencies, and we’re ready to help.” 

peepoople.com


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