An impending ban on disposable nappies in Vanuatu sent the community reeling. But Engineers Without Borders (EWB) came up with a solution that could save time and reduce environmental impacts, while giving families a financial boost too.
When Vanuatu issued a world-leading ban on single-use plastics in 2018, the small archipelago with a population of around 300,000 successfully cut the use of non-biodegradable plastics such as bags, polystyrene containers and straws.
However, the next stage of the legislation, announced in 2019, proposed banning disposable nappies – leading to panic across Vanuatu’s 83 islands.
With 20,000 babies and toddlers, disposable nappies make up much of the waste in the nation’s landfills.
But with scarce access to electricity and limited water supplies, hand washing is par for the course – which could prove problematic when it comes to cleaning reusable nappies, said Mitch Horrocks, Technology Development Lead at EWB Australia.
“Each piece of clothing is individually brushed on a board, which can take up to 2.5 hours, with [the water] discarded into a soakaway,” he said. “Safely cleaning diapers was therefore a bit of a worry for people who have never had to do that before.”
While the nation-wide ban on disposable nappies is yet to be enacted, EWB was commissioned by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme to develop a long-lasting plan to prepare Vanuatu’s communities.
Beginning with research in the Ni-Vanuatu communities of Pango, Eratap and Eton villages, EWB identified that 15% of families found switching to reusable nappies a challenge.
The time, water and energy it takes to wash nappies safely were of primary concern, which is where the idea for a hand-powered “Tumble Drum” washing machine came in.
“We wanted to develop a project with some behavioural-change elements to ensure we make it as easy as possible for them to switch over to reusables if the ban comes into effect,” said Horrocks.
Developing the machine
To configure the design of the Tumble Drum, the EWB team looked at basic washing machines to identify how those principles could be leveraged for use in a hand-powered device.
Several tests were conducted, including wrapping socks in a t-shirt and hand spinning them as fast as possible in the same direction for 5 minutes.
“When we opened [the machine] we found the socks in the same position,” said Horrocks. “So we realised it’s actually the agitation – that slow moving of clothes – that eventually washes them, with the help of detergent.”
With that in mind, the team set about developing their first prototype with local not-for-profit Field Ready, made from locally sourced materials, including an outer drum consisting of a 20- litre plastic water container.
The machine functions much like a top loader, with a hand-powered mechanism that moves the clothes around for a 40-minute cycle. The inner drum, which is essentially a cage, runs on the same axis – lifting up the clothes as the dirty water is drained through a plug at the bottom of the machine.
“The Tumble Drum rotates around a horizontal axis that can be moved backwards and forwards, encouraging the clothes to also move around in different places so they don’t get stuck,” said Horrocks.
Reconfiguring the prototype
After testing the first iteration of the Tumble Drum, the EWB team discovered it required a significant amount of exertion to manoeuvre, leading to concerns about shoulder injuries.
Horrocks then collaborated with EWB’s pro bono partner, Toyota, in their Melbourne workshop to develop a second prototype powered by bicycle. With the Tumble Drum attached to the bike’s gears, the user just has to sit on the saddle and pump the pedals to operate the machine.
New designs are not developed blindly, however. “We always seek out the communities to find out what makes sense to them, for example, would they even like sitting on a bike, or would they rather use their hand?” he said.
The EWB team recently received a shipment of prototype 2 from Toyota, with a mini pilot comprising five to 10 machines set to begin in July.
“We’ll do a side-by-side test with prototype 1 and see how they prefer it,” said Horrocks. “Ideally we’d like to use prototype 2 as the solution to power the Tumble Drum, but that depends if we can find second-hand bikes,” he said.
Social entreprise in action
While the EWB team is still considering how Vanuatu’s communities could make use of the Tumble Drum, one avenue they’re exploring is a social enterprise business that entails creating a micro-financing model for mothers to run a laundry service.
“One mother could buy a large version of the Tumble Drum with a clear business plan from us saying, ‘You can charge 500 vatu ($6.30 AU) per wash, and clean five families’ clothes every week to pay off the costs of the machine’,” said Horrocks. “Once paid, all the profits can be theirs.”
From initial focus groups, there is definitely a demand for the laundry service, with 64% indicating they would pay for it, and 87% interested in starting their own laundry business.
The service is currently in the pilot phase with prototype 1, which entails four families paying a mother to wash their clothes using the Tumble Drum through EWB funds.
“After that, we’ll do some interviews with the user and customers to see where the sticking points are,” he said.
Once the final design of the machine is locked down, Horrocks hopes it can be manufactured on site in Vanuatu using locally sourced materials.
“All the internal parts can hopefully be hand made with local fabricators in a workshop to the exact design specifications the Toyota team and I used,” he said.
“We will mostly use galvanised steel, a few timber parts treated to prevent damage from water exposure, and some simple welding screws and fixings to make sure it all goes together.”
If all goes to plan, Horrocks hopes the Tumble Drum products can roll out by the start of next year, with scaling to other neighbouring locations also a possibility.
“People prioritise hand washing all across the Pacific, mainly because they don’t have any other options,” he said.
“Field Ready has a base in Fiji, so there’s an opportunity for them to take one of our designs, do the same user testing over there and see if it translates.”
The project has also been endorsed by Engineers Australia, said Head of Climate Change Mark Bonner.
“Through its United Nations Environment Programme accreditation, EA is enabling sister organisations like EWB to shine a global spotlight on their innovative and real-world engineering solutions, such as in this case study which is helping one of our Pacific Island neighbours achieve their nationally determined goals while simultaneously delivering many co-benefits,” he said.
“This includes enhanced circularity of materials, reduced waste, improving gender equity and safety via economic empowerment, and driving better community hygiene and sanitation outcomes for all.”