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Is This Water-Filtering Paper The Solution To Clean Water In The Developing World?

Millions of people live without safe drinking water. Is this simple design a life-saver, or a silly first-world solution?

For as long as well-meaning nonprofits have been trying to help bring clean drinking water to the developing world, they’ve had a history of getting it wrong. Like wells that break when locals don’t have the tools or training to fix them. Or gadgets like the LifeStraw, which look clever but are hard to use. And water filters that people can’t afford to buy.

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A new water filter, called pAge Papers, is an attempt to do better. Made from paper embedded with bacteria-killing nanoparticles of silver or copper, it costs only slightly more than a regular sheet of paper–making it cheaper than almost all other water filters available now.

“There are plenty of options,” says Theresa Dankovich, the postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who led the development of the technology. “Chlorine tablets do a good job, so do ceramic water filters, and there are many other options as well. The real issue is that a lot of these are too expensive for people to use, so they just don’t bother. They do nothing.”

The new filter paper, like others, is aimed at the 660 million people who don’t have access to clean water, and who make less than a dollar or two a day.

Though the paper has high-tech roots, and has been proven in field tests to kill 99% of microbial contaminants, it uses a minuscule amount of materials. “The amount of silver in the paper is less than one weight percent of the paper, so it’s really a tiny fraction of the cost,” says Dankovich.

An early prototype of the filter, which laid out the paper in a book that doubled as an educational tool, called the Drinkable Book, has drawn a few criticisms as a gimmick. “Drinkable book epitomizes everything wrong with ‘innovation’ in international development; next come the awards,” tweeted the founder of a water tech startup.

But Dankovich explains that the book is only one potential design; she’s also working with a product designer to create a simple vessel that would hold the paper. Over the summer, working with potential users in Bangladesh, they repeatedly tweaked the design, traveling to 11 villages to gather insights.

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“We’ve really been striving to make sure that it’s not something that we think looks cool, but actually is really useful and robust,” she says.

“We really wanted to see people in their own space,” says Luke Hyndrick, the product designer. “Talk to them about their lives, their families, what challenges they were facing, what they value, and to try to really understand our hosts as people.”

They watched how people used the filters without instructions, saw what worked and what didn’t, and asked for feedback. “At the first session in Barisal, we tested six concepts, and some literally failed immediately, which is actually a really fantastic thing because those failures helped us understand a user need that we had clearly overlooked,” he says. By the 11th session, they had narrowed down the design to a final concept.

The design may vary from culture to culture. But in Bangladesh, they saw that a larger version of the filter–though popular with users–was too expensive. Instead, they took inspiration from the other products that people were using, and made it small.

“People are living day to day, and buy only what they need at that specific moment,” Hyndrick says. “A good example is sanitation products. People in Bangladesh buy one-use sachets of shampoo or soap because it is the most they can afford at one time. They know that buying a bottle of shampoo is more cost-efficient, but there aren’t the funds to purchase the bottle of shampoo. The Page Water filter is like the sachet version of a water filter. It’s not going to last forever, but it works and people can afford it.”

As the team works on developing the design for other regions, they may also experiment with more complicated versions of the filter. Right now, while the filter gets rid of bacteria and viruses, it doesn’t filter out heavy metals like arsenic, which is a significant problem in some parts of Bangladesh. More features could be added to get the water even cleaner; for now, they’re focused on addressing the waterborne diseases that come from bacteria.

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Over the next year, they plan to test the product more with users. “We need to gather data on if they’re using them correctly, and what problems might be, and if it actually is helping them to be healthier,” says Dankovich. “We want to do those trials first before we start selling it.” They’re currently raising funds on Indiegogo to run the pilots.

The product may be on the market in about a year. Dankovich sees it as a stepping-stone to more permanent infrastructure. “We envision this as the first step to people having less illness,” she says. “Then hopefully they’ll be able to work more hours, and be able to make more money, and afford more long-term systems like pipe infrastructure and central water treatment. Until that happens, there are still a lot of people out there that need this.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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