Peace Corps

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 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!