Peepoople makes bags for going to the toilet, but not any old bags. Inside are chemicals that break down the poo and pee into fertilizer. Peepoople’s bags not only help contain dangerous waste, offering alternative sanitation in slums and refugee camps. They also begin to turn the feces into a positive material that can nourish crops.
The business was started 10 years ago by Anders Wilhelmson, an architect, urban planner, and professor at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology. On a trip to India with his students, Wilhelmson met some women who told him that, while they could solve most problems in life, “the problems of their personal hygiene” were hardest. There weren’t enough toilets. Wilhelmson then started to think of the bag–which he considers a sort of mobile toilet, something akin to what a cell phone is to a landline.
A decade later, Peepoople produces 80,000 bags a day. It has its own modern production facility, and capacity to go to 500,000 units daily if it wants. Currently, it sells to communities in Nairobi, Kenya, and Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and sends bags to refugee camps in South Sudan, Syria, Nepal, and elsewhere.
“In an emergency, it’s an emergency toilet,” Wilhelmson says. “In slums, it’s a toilet when no other toilet is existing. We don’t say that it’s, by necessity, an everyday toilet. But it could be a toilet at night when there are no other toilets because the public toilets are closed. This is an all-night toilet, instead of an everyday toilet.”
Peepoople is aimed at the problem of open defecation in places without sanitation, which causes disease and pollutes water supplies. The bioplastic bag has an inner lining covered with urea powder. Together with an enzyme in the bacteria of poop, it produces ammonia gas that raises the PH level until nothing wants to live inside the bag, and the feces degrades. Once collected, the bags are buried in the ground. In optimal conditions, Wilhelmson says you can use the fertilizer in six months (dry conditions with bad soil takes longer).
The bags sell for about 3.4 cents each, which Wilhelmson calls a slightly subsidized (or aspirational) price. He hopes to bring costs down further by producing in higher volume and eventually moving to a “second generation” material that should be 40% cheaper. The current plastic is made by BASF and degrades to CO2 and water.
Now Peepoople has established the bag as a sanitation product, the plan next is to concentrate on the manure side of things. There are two main options, as Wilhelmson sees it. One is to sell the fertilizer in dried pellet form. That makes it easier to handle and transport, but currently has the drawback that drying causes a loss of nitrogen and therefore a lower-quality product. The other option is to sell the manure as slurry and offer a full delivery service to farmers. Either way, Peepoople needs to win government approval to sell human waste first. “We have to overcome the reluctance to use human manure,” Wilhelmson says.
Peepoople, which is owned privately by five Swedish families, is impressive because it’s managed to take a simple idea–a toilet bag–and make something with wide potential reach. If it can crack the manure side of things, it could help underpin the sanitation business, and improve people’s crops at the same time.