Can you imagine living without a toilet? One reporter recently chronicled her personal ordeal in “Two Weeks Without A Toilet,” for The New York Times. “Without A Toilet” doesn’t exactly live up to its name, as the reporter simply used bathrooms in stores, at the YMCA, as well as at neighbors’ and friends’ apartments. Still, she managed to turn a minor inconvenience into a three-page article in The Times.

A week before I read the Times piece I came across a story on the BBC, “Fear of Rape in Kenya’s Slums ‘Trap Women,'” about lack of access to sanitation for women and girls in Kenyan slums. While the article focused on the problem of sexual violence keeping women and girls away from public latrines at night, it also highlighted the often neglected point that access to sanitation worldwide is a huge problem. In fact, World Health Organization figures for 2010 state that 2.6 billion people or 39 percent of the global population live without access to improved sanitation. Thinking about that kind of make you feel less sorry for that reporter who had to use a hotel bathroom…

Piles of rotting waste line the streets of a slum [AFP]

But “Fear of Rape…” was about more than just reporting on a problem that some of us already know exists. It introduced an exciting new public health technology that may help solve or reduce some of the most pressing sanitation problems. Known as the Peepoo (don’t ask me why they had to name it that–the nutty Swedes are behind this one), it is described on the website as

a personal single use toilet, that sanitizes human excreta shortly after defecation, preventing the faeces from contaminating the immediate and larger environment.

The Peepoo is in the form of a slim elongated bag measuring 14 x 38 centimeters. Within the bag there is a layer of thin gauze that measures 26 x 24 cm. The inside of the Peepoo is coated with a thin film of urea. Without sacrificing ergonomic function, the bag’s design is adapted in every way so that it might be manufactured at as low a price as possible and sold to groups with the weakest purchasing power in the world.

The Peepoo is designed to be used once, sitting, squatting or standing. If one uses the bag by holding it with only the hand, the thin gauze prevents all contact with the excrement. The bag can also be placed in a cut plastic bottle or small bucket and used as a chamber pot.

Peepoos are odor free for at least 24 hours after use and can thus be stored in the immediate environment.

Child with a Peepoo bag []

It is basically a biodegradable bag that is “coated with chemicals that turn human waste into fertilizer.” So if you wake up in the middle of the night and are worried about getting to a toilet (assuming there is one) safely, you could use this product without worrying about a mess or odor. Moreover, they make a great replacement to the “flying toilet:” plastic bags of human waste, thrown from homes, that often litter slums and linger for years.

The Peepoo seems like an exciting new development, I just hope that they are priced to sell to the people that need them most. As sanitation is a daily need, these could be a constant expenditure for many people. Clearly they are not the solution to the global sanitation crisis, but they are a good short-term measure.