Biodegradable Bags

No Toilet Option – Biodegradable Bags

Limited supply of biodegradable bags and indiscriminate dumping of plastic bags

Under certain conditions, a plastic bag might be the only way to relieve one selves quickly, efficiently and in private. In many countries where we work, the supply of biodegradable bags that could be used to store urine and faeces is limited to one brand.

At the same time, areas are littered with discarded plastic bags posing a major environmental disaster.

Would it be feasible to use biodegradable ‘shopping’ bags as a ‘no toilet solution’?

Ideally, daily shopping needs could be packed into biodegradable bags. If these biodegradable bags would be in ample supply, these bags could be used to store urine and faeces after use. So the questions we have are:

  • Can we diversify the number of producers of biodegradable bags for pee and poo?;
  • Can we contribute to solving the plastic problem by making all plastic bags biodegradable?
  • Why can’t we pee and poo in biodegradable plastic shopping bags?


  • Promotion of the diversification of the number of producers of biodegradable bags for pee and poo given that there are currently a small number of options available.
  • Contributing to solving the plastic problem by making all plastic bags biodegradable.
  • Investigation into using standard biodegradable shopping bags for pee and poo.

Activities undertaken:

  • § A first research study showed that the production of biodegradable bags is not a solution to the plastic (litter) problem in Africa. Research indicated that there was no market for biodegradable shopping bags and that manufacturing in Africa would not be economically feasible for this purpose as people are used to shopping bags being handed out for free. However, for specific uses as for sanitation purposes in emergency situations, these bags can offer a practical solution and it was found that any factory manufacturing plastic bags is able to produce biodegradable bags. Therefore a try-out was recommended of the production of biodegradable bags to verify the technical feasibility combined with really using the bags to gain more insight in the time needed for composting in an African country. The selected country is Malawi where this try-out can be linked with other ongoing activities. As the raw material for the biodegradable bags is not available in Africa, this material needs to be transported from Germany to Malawi.
  • § Additional research was started with more focus on the key criteria needed to be addressed to discern the feasibility of using biodegradable bags as an emergency sanitation solution. The research indicated the two key issues that influenced the feasibility of using biodegradable bags manufactured in Malawi for an emergency situation: the guarantee of availability of the product within the first stage of the emergency; and establishing an economically competitive product.

Availability of Product within first stage of the emergency.

Quick deployment is a key criterion for an emergency sanitation solution. Two options considered and associated issues are provided in the following table. It was concluded that both options considered could not guarantee the availability of the biodegradable bag product for the relief stage of an emergency.

OptionKey Issues
1. Prefabrication and Storage
Biodegradable bags would be prefabricated and stored ready for dispatched upon the occurrence of an emergency
Biodegradable bags only have a shelf-life of 2 years before they start decomposing and on-set of an emergency is unpredictable therefore availability cannot be guaranteed
2. Manufacture upon Demand
Upon the occurrence of an emergency, biodegradable bags are produced by the manufacturer and dispatched to the emergency site
Raw Material
Raw material for biodegradable bags is not available in Africa and therefore has to be sent from Germany. This will add additional transportation time and increase the deployment time of the bags to the emergency site. Alternatively the raw material could be stored at the Malawi manufacturing site for contingency, however due to the fact that the raw material also biodegrades, this would not be feasible.
Manufacture Risk
There is an additional risk associated with the production guarantee from the manufacturing company. As an emergency situation is unpredictable, it would be hard to set up a contract with the manufacturer. There is therefore a risk of the manufacturer not being willing to stop regular production and produce biodegradable bags for the emergency situation

Economically Competitive Product:

For the product to be successfully implemented, it would need to be more economical than other competitive products e.g. Peepoo bags that are already being manufactured and hence can be readily distributed in the event of an emergency. Based on the price of 28 Peepoo bags being in the range of €2.5-3.5, the cost of merely manufacturing the bags in Malawi made the prospective product already not economically superior.

After carefully having analysed all issues concerned, involved costs and consultations with the local partner it was concluded that it is a very interesting approach but that the scope for emergencies of this approach is rather limited and that it is not really worth the effort of starting an elaborate trial in Malawi.

Tell us your idea!

If you have any products, product facility, ideas or would like to become involved in the biodegradable bag project please get in touch with:
Jan Spit, Adviser Sanitation
WASTE advisers on urban environment and development
tel: + 31 70 205 10 25
mob: +31 6 57 99 78 74