What can a clay pot do to solve clean water issues for people that lack access while eliminating the need for plastic bottles in urban areas? Quite a lot actually.
I first saw an Ecofiltro in use on our very first night at a guesthouse in Guatemala. It was very encouraging to see a clay filter used instead of the standard plastic jug. Our host didn’t know much about the filter though, and it wasn’t until we happened across the Ecofiltro offices a couple weeks later that we learned more about them. I am passionate about finding solutions for bottled water waste, so stumbling upon their offices felt serendipitous.
After learning more about how the filters work and their program to get clean drinking water out into the hands of rural families in Guatemala, I scheduled a time to meet with Sam Snyder, the Executive Director of ecofiltro: one, to learn more.
About the Filter
The filter is extremely innovative in its simplicity. It sits on a counter about the same size as the 5 gallon plastic jug and dispensers you’ve seen in office break rooms across the US. The filter is made from clay, sawdust, and colloidal silver, and then carbon filters out any odor and taste. All of Ecofiltro’s materials are sourced locally and have minimal environmental impact.
The filter inset sits inside a clay or plastic dispenser and filters water at about 2 liters per hour. The dispenser functions just like the kind that use the big jugs of water, only when you need a refill, instead of hauling a new 5 gallon jug in, you simply fill the despenser back up with tap water and let the filter do the work. You can read more about how it works, see how they’re made, and check out awards it’s won at ecofiltro.org.
Distributing Filters to Those In Need
The filters have been in use for a while (invented in 1981) and in addition to being a social business, Ecofiltros have been used by the Red Cross and other NGOs in times of need.
However, there had never been a program in place to get Ecofiltros to people that — regardless of a major natural disaster — consistently need a better system for clean drinking water.
In early 2012, however, Sam and his team began beta testing an innovative method of distribution in which the filters are provided to families initially at no cost, and then the family agrees to pay for the replacement filters (which are needed about every 2 years) at cost on a monthly basis.
This sounds pretty straight-forward until you remember that this is an utterly new concept in these rural Guatemalan communities. So how does Ecofiltro get this done?
They start by approaching the officially elected local leaders, and if they can get buy-in, they then create a water advisory board. Getting buy-in is not an easy task. There isn’t sufficient education around clean drinking water, people aren’t used to paying for water, and there is doubt about the effectiveness of the filter to not only properly clean the water but to make sure that there is no flavor issue. Sam told me that most people would rather drink unsafe water than filtered water that has a chlorine flavor.
After doing this a few times, it has become apparent that the women in these communities made the best members of water advisory boards. So Ecofiltro made it a requirement that at least one woman be on the board. Since the men here are generally out working and the women are more invested in programs for the home, it works out better that way.
The women on the advisory board then become advocates of the system, which is key to the ongoing success of the program.
When approached by the Ecofiltro field team, typically about 90% of the families in a community sign up for the program. Once the filters are delivered, families are asked to sign a contract to pay for the filters over the next two years. Ecofiltro will replace any broken filters or pieces during that time as long program payments are being made.
So far, there has been about a 70% on-time payment rate, which is pretty amazing.
Follow Up Education and Building Relationships
After the filters are in a community, Ecofiltro schedules quarterly educational visits to help build awareness around general sanitary issues such as cleaning drinking glasses, covering standing pools of water, and various other things that help keep families in these communities healthy. Education also continues to highlight the importance of clean water and the fact that clean water isn’t free — everyone pays for clean water in the US and the rest of the world.
It really struck me when Sam said the families who now have filters are just so happy to be able to get a glass of water inside their house. As a person who grew with fresh, safe, plentiful, tapwater, it’s crazy to think about that. These are people that have never been able to simply serve themselves a glass of water without having to go fetch it first.
While a lot of these communities have previously heard about the importance of clean water — when asked, most of them say they boil their water, though Sam has never seen this and suspects most “boiling” is merely heating the water — they lack the resources and education to ensure that they are properly decontaminating their drinking supply.
As for their current supply, most families keep their water in storage tanks, have wells dug, or hike to the nearest stream for their water. While their supply is still inconvenient, they are sure happy to be able to serve a glass of clean, pure water inside their home.
As of June 2013, Ecofiltro has delivered 4,386 filters to 74 communities, improving over 26,000 people’s health. And they’ve just gotten started. You can check out a map of their locations and stats here: http://ecofiltro.org/en/map.
Not Just a Charity
So getting these filters to rural families in need is amazing, but what’s really cool about Ecofiltros is that they are just as valuable as a for-profit business in urban areas where people typically rely on plastic jugs of water and bottled water because the tap water isn’t clean enough to drink.
Not only are Ecofiltros much cheaper than buying the 5-gallon plastic jugs, they eliminate the need for the colossal energy, transportation, and waste needed to produce those plastic jugs and bottles.
Currently, Ecofiltro operates a hybrid business model where the profits from urban Ecofiltros go to fund the non-profit entity, ecofiltro: one to provide the filters at cost in rural areas. Based on growth and scalability, the actual relationship between the two sides of the organization going forward is yet to be finalized, but there are lots of possibilities when you’ve got the same product that can serve two different needs.
Sam is also working with another awesome local organization (G-22) to start promoting the use of Ecofiltros in restaurants and hotels, which has me extremely excited. Traveling in Central America I see so much disposable plastic water bottle use that I often feel overwhelmed. Even people that are very aware of the negative effects of plastic water bottles and would never buy bottled water at home are often times forced to buy them when traveling because no other option for safe drinking water exists. And a lot of tourists = a lot of plastic bottle waste. In fact, a man built an island out of plastic bottles, and built a house on top of that island near the tourist hotspot of Cancun, Mexico. He didn’t even put a dent in the plastic bottle waste.
I think Ecofiltro is a very viable solution to drastically reduce the amount of plastic bottles used by tourists in areas where the water isn’t safe to drink and I’m really looking forward to chatting with Alfredo from G-22 about their plans to get awareness and distribution going.
Scaling the Model
What’s most encouraging about all of this is the opportunity to scale the operation. Like trying anything new, you learn best from your mistakes. Now that they’ve made and distributed a few thousand filters, it’s easier to know how much space is needed for production (there’s a lot of drying time in between stages), how to approach leadership, what type of people make the best water advisory board members, and how to structure the terms of the agreement for recurring payments in the communities.
With the process improving and success stories growing, it won’t be long before the process can be replicated in communities across Central America and across the world.
To learn more about Ecofiltro, or to connect about buying one or trying to get a program going, visit the Ecofiltro site and contact the team. Feel free to share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.