It can feel strange (or even a little shallow) writing a business story about the opportunities available for companies making products to address very serious health problems in developing countries, like you're focusing on someone's profit motive rather than the people suffering without adequate toilets or clean water.
But because there's a tangible and growing market for meeting these needs, companies are jumping in. We've had a few of these stories lately.
In the last few days we had this one I wrote on the "Clean India" campaign, and how it was a big topic at a recent plastics industry conference there because of the spending it could bring on infrastructure, including around toilets for the estimated 550 million Indians who have to defecate in the open.
Or this video about U.S. molder Cascade Engineering's products to filter water in developing countries or this one on a South African rotomolder that has a rapidly growing business (from 30 to 150 employees in two years) making waterless, odorless polyethylene toilets.
The general media has also had a lot of coverage in recent weeks along the same lines, some of it like this July 6 New York Times story on the successes and failures of the Millennium Development Goals, a series of targets set in 2000 for improving lives in developing countries by 2015.
The U.N. report notes a lot of progress, with significant declines in extreme poverty, the tripling of people in the working middle class and getting girls in school in the same numbers as boys (if you think too hard, it's sad that we mark eliminating gender disparity in education as a milestone rather than see it as a given, but it is progress).
That said, some of the stubborn problems that remain, like open defecation and sanitation, have a big potential role for plastics.
The U.N. MDG report itself notes that 2.4 billion people still use “unimproved sanitation” and 950 million defecate in the open.
This BBC report by Delhi-based correspondent Soutik Biswas takes a look at some of the education efforts needed, and there's this Ted talk from journalist Rose George, author of the 2009 book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, where she calls sanitation the millennium goal that the world is most lagging behind in meeting.
“It's the most off-track Millennium Development Goal,” she said. “It's about 50 or so years off track. We're not going to meet targets, providing people with sanitation at this rate. So when I get sad about sanitation, I think of Japan, because Japan 70 years ago was a nation of people who used pit latrines and wiped with sticks.”
It seems there are significant opportunities for plastics companies in helping to get that goal back on track.