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Saturday, September 15, 2012

How Would Nature Design a Diaper? Please Share!


Biomimicry Design Challenge, open to all!

I received an email this month from Kristin Follmer, a recent Rural Health and Sanitation Volunteer in the Peace Corps. She was stationed in Paraguay, where fresh water and sanitation infrastructure tend to be poor, and childhood intestinal infestation, primarily tapeworms and Giardia, is shockingly common (as high as 80%).

Kristin relates that education, hand-washing, construction of sanitary latrines, and protection of fresh-water are vital for controlling infestation, but there is one major obstacle: rural Paraguayans have no good solution to dirty diapers.

Diapers litter the streets to be shredded by dogs, (who find them to be a delicacy, spreading gelatinous mulch like ambrosia on the fifth of July). Kristin has found bio-inspired thinking to be useful in her work, planting trees (nitrogen fixers) around latrines to assist decomposition, and she asks if you, the reader, can come up with a bio-inspired solution to the problem.

According to Kristin, there are two main challenges to the problem. First, there is no good place to dispose of the diapers. Most families burn their trash and organic material like leaves. Peace Corps encourages people to dig a trash pit in their yards, but many families do not want to live alongside their trash when they can burn it so easily. Fresh dirty diapers don’t burn well, so some people throw them down the latrines, but that’s not a popular choice because they don’t want to their latrines to fill too quickly. Kristin’s friend, Sonia collected her daughter’s dirty diapers, then brought them into town, to be taken to a municipal dump. Another neighbor, Fulana, left the diapers with the other trash, to be burned later in the week, giving the local dogs a chance to root through and spread diaper trash around the block. Another popular dumping ground is the bottom of an isolated road, where intense rainstorms routinely washed the trash downstream.

Second, there is no running water. Most families have hand-dug wells, but no plumbing. Sonia, for example, walks to her mother-in-law’s home several times a day to draw water from the well, carrying it about 50 meters home. That may not seem far, but it takes a lot of water to cook, clean, bathe, wash clothes, wash hands, water the flowers, and drink. No one wants to add washing cloth diapers to that. Plus, a mother would need to find a place to dump the poopy water afterwards. This water, probably contaminated with parasite eggs, will likely to end up in streams where kids bathe, or create muddy puddles for pigs to wallow. One common type of parasite is transmitted from soil through bare feet, and mothers washing clothes are often surrounded by small children. And of course, it vital to protect drinking water, which most people drink from their wells without treatment.

Although it would certainly be possible for a woman to use cloth diapers, Kristin doesn’t know anyone who does. Even though a single disposable diaper costs the same as three eggs or a half-liter of fresh cow milk, which is significant to these poor families, they still prefer disposable because of the water and laundry issues. But Kristin feels that an alternative that was cheaper than disposables would be adopted quickly, as Paraguayans don’t like dirty diaper trash either.

Can you help? I think this is a great challenge, and Biomimicry can be a useful tool to address it with. My hope is that we can create a conversation around the challenge, and draw a variety of great minds in to this approach. Please send me your thoughts and ideas, and I will present updates here. Ideally, we can get some school classes to participate, so please do forward this on to any science, design, or engineering teachers you may know! Kristin says she can help speculate on the cultural acceptance of any solutions that may emerge, something that would make sense to a Paraguayan.

For those of you that have no experience tackling a Biomimicry challenge, here are some guidelines for the process. I’d recommend starting with one of Janine Benyus’ TED talks on youtube, then asking yourself, “what is the real challenge here?” Obviously, you can’t ask “How would Nature design a diaper?” Nature doesn’t do diapers. So, dig deeper. You might abstract the question to “How does Nature remove waste, or unwanted substances.” Or, “How does Nature deal with bacteria?” There is also the question of “how does Nature prevent leaks?” We want a solution that a mom would actually LIKE! You may find that you want to change the entire system, going back further than the diapers!

Next, do your research. Look for organisms that tackle these kinds of problems. You will probably want to look at AskNature.org for some of Nature’s tried and true engineering solutions. Don’t be afraid to play with ideas, no matter how strange or silly, and above all, HAVE FUN! Keep me posted along the way. Let's brainstorm together! Kristin and I are excited to hear what you come up with!


  1. this is an awesome problem to solve using how would nature...brava.

  2. Here's an update: a lot of talk about Elimination Communication (look it up on Wikipedia) as one tool to reduce cost, water, laundry, diapers, trash, and latrine filling. Kristin, do you think EC education? Would be well received? Won't work for every parent or child, but might be a good tool in the arsenal...

  3. I'm getting a lot of STEM teachers interested in bringing this challenge to their classes in the context of Sustainability modules and Technology/engineering. That's great! If anyone needs assistance crafting a lesson plan, I've got 'em!

  4. Hi! Thank you for your interest in this challenge!

    Yes, elimination communication training could probably be more fully utilized. I’m far from an expert, and I haven’t raised a child in Paraguay or the US, but here are some of my thoughts.

    I think that it’s fair to say that the Paraguayans do use fewer diapers, and do pay attention to the regular bowel movements of their children. Especially after a kid is walking around, mothers use the diapers only for poop. Teaching elimination communication strategies would probably help, though there still will be diapers used and also, there’s the question of where the kids are going to the bathroom if it’s not in a diaper.

    Latrines aren’t really kid friendly. Surely there’s a simple fix, a matter of introducing a type of potty training chair over the latrine, but image if you’re around 2 years old, learning to recognize when it’s time to poop, and the bathroom your family uses is a squat latrine (as most are). I think kids are intimidated (with good reason) to go into the latrine! A good latrine is one that has a concrete floor (a Peace Corps project is promoting these concrete floors as sanitary improvements over wood floors). A concrete latrine floor is usually constructed by pouring cement in the mold which uses a brick to shape the hole. A common brick isn’t too big, but relative to the body size of a little kid, it would seem huge. Plus, you’d be looking into a smelly pit pulsing with maggots. Anyway, what caregivers are supposed to do is have their kids go in a basin, which the parents will empty. I don’t have an idea what percentage of mothers follow that guideline. What I saw happening was kids squatting on the ground and then the parent shoveling it up, if they noticed. I also saw kids squatting on the ground, and dogs eating the fresh poo. Basically, there still isn’t a sanitary way to dispose of the excrement, if it doesn’t make it into the bathroom. A latrine isn’t necessarily close to the house and it would require lots of supervision to use for small children.

    Elimination Communication education might be the most economical way to reduces waste and improve sanitation, but it’s sure to be much more challenging than using a daily diaper then throwing it down the stream. As environmental education continues, I think people will put more effort into protecting their environments but at this point, it’s not a widespread priority. I’ll try to read more about how it is used most effectively, but I think it would be best supplemented with another strategy.

    Please keep the comments flowing! Thank you!

  5. Check out Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE). http://www.sheinnovates.com/ourventures.html

    Might be an interesting model. They are innovating sustainable, low cost menstrual pads for women in developing countries. One aspect I particularly like is how they are pairing it with a business model based on local materials and local production by local women -- helping them set up sustainable small businesses.