Make good of dirty diapers

Other countries recycle disposables into usable products


One child can produce approximately one ton of soiled disposable diapers by the time he or she is toilet-trained. With 125 million babies born worldwide in the last year, and the vast majority of parents in industrialized nations using plastic-based diapers, that’s a lot of, well, waste.

Disposable diapers are traditionally buried in landfills, where experts say they can take 500 years to decompose, or they are buried in large incinerators, which release potentially harmful toxins in the air.

Concerned about the impact that the disposal of soiled “nappies” has on the environment, both Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Melbourne in Australia have discovered an alternative: recycling.

The idea of reusing dirty diapers is about as appealing as, say, reusing someone’s used tissue or picking up another’s toothbrush. Both Amsterdam and Melbourne are using technology from Toronto-based Knowaste LLC to help transform millions of diapers into new industrial and consumer products.

In Amsterdam, the technology can process 100,000 tons of diaper material per year.

Making the process simple for parents is essential, says Knowaste spokeswoman Fiona Hutton.

As with other recyclables, such as newspapers, cans and bottles, the soiled diapers (both baby diapers and adult incontinence diapers) are picked up curbside on specific days and taken to a special diaper recycling facility.

During the multi-step recycling process, each diaper is sanitized and separated into its plastic and wood pulp components. After several rounds of washing and filters, the materials are transformed into roof shingles, shoe insoles and wallpaper.

Knowaste thinks the process will be a great success in Melbourne. The Australian cities of Sydney, Brisbane and Perth are expected to roll out the service in the upcoming months.

But don’t expect a recycling truck to pick up little Jimmy’s dirty diapers in Chicago any time soon. Hutton admits that “it’s hard to work the economics [of diaper recycling] over here.” It’s much less expensive to incinerate trash in the United States, and there is a lot more space available for landfill, she says.

“Countries with more stringent environmental regulations and higher-density regions are more receptive to the service,” she says.

One Chicago recycling advocate questions whether these efforts, though well-meaning, are being properly directed.

“I don’t believe that the energy invested is worth the effort,” says Ken Dunn, founder and director of the Resource Center, one of the first recycling centers in Chicago.

“There is a very good recycling program called a washing machine and a reusable cloth diaper,” he says.

Dunn and his wife have raised five children with cloth diapers.

“There are inexpensive delivery services that will clean and sterilize cloth diapers. There is no    reason to endanger a baby with a paper and plastic concoction,” says Dunn.

Elisabeth Goodridge, Medill News Service

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