In a refugee camp, getting up to pee in the middle of the night can mean getting raped on the way to the communal latrine. For some women and girls, that fact leads to avoiding food and water in the evening, or waiting until the morning, when holding it in can lead to a UTI.
One designer thinks that a better solution might be a modern version of a chamber pot. The “Night Loo,” a concept for a simple reusable urinal, is designed to come with tiny packets of a superabsorbent polymer, the same material used in sanitary pads and diapers. In the night, a refugee could use the Night Loo in her tent and then drop in a sachet of the polymer. The tiny bag dissolves, and within a minute, fully absorbs all the liquid and turns it into a dry, odorless powder. In the morning, the device can be closed and carried to the latrine; one end of the container opens into a spout to pour the contents out.
“I just thought there’s got to be a better way,” says Anna Meddaugh, a product design student at Art Center College of Design who created the concept for a class that asked students to consider products for displaced people. In her research about the problem, one story stood out to her: A volunteer at a camp described refugee women and girls begging for adult diapers because they were so afraid to visit the latrine at night.
Meddaugh considered various potential designs, including a version of a chamber pot that refugees could make themselves from two discarded water jugs. It was cheap and would have avoided the need to wait for someone to manufacture and distribute something to the camps. But it was difficult to clean. The final design, made from silicone, unfolds flat so it can easily be washed, and then folds up, origami-like, into a simple vessel with flaps that act as splash guards and then close so the loo can be carried.
Because families share tents, it was critical that the loo couldn’t spill and wouldn’t smell. “I wanted to preserve the dignity and comfort of everyone as much as possible,” Meddaugh says. She considered various absorbent materials, including several made from plants, but landed on a particular superabsorbent polymer because it worked so well. Meddaugh acknowledges that it creates some plastic waste. But avoiding the possibility of sexual assault, she felt, easily outweighed potential environmental costs.
The design is unproven, and prototypes have yet to be tested in refugee camps. But the cost of the products would be relatively low; in early rough calculations, Meddaugh estimated that one loo and a year’s supply of packets would cost around $20 per person. (Meddaugh bought the polymer from Amazon, but how it would get to refugee camps in bulk would require a different solution.) She plans to continue working on the design through another class at Art Center called Launch Lab and is also applying for a grant. The design is also a runner-up for the U.S. division of the 2018 James Dyson Award, and will progress to the international round of the competition; the winner of the competition will receive £30,000, or roughly $38,000. “I want to get guidance on how to bring this into the world,” she says. “Otherwise, what a waste of a good idea.”