More than 187 billion used diapers are discarded every year and more than 20 million tonnes of them are burned or dumped in landfills globally every year. While collecting, cleaning and breaking diapers into their parts – plastic, cellulose and super absorbent polymer – is tricky and expensive, a lot of work on recycling has been done over the past decade.
In Taiwan, researchers invented a machine to quickly recycle them. In Italy, the world’s largest manufacturer – Procter and Gamble – is working with Angelini Group on a pilot recycling project that aims to turn them into plastic bottle caps and viscose clothing. Fater Group, which is the joint venture between the two, has created Pampers Nuova Vita in Verona to promote the experimental collection of used diapers for recycling. A phone app tells people where the nearest diaper recycling bin is located.
But it is in Wales that the most activity is taking place. Pellets made from recycling more than 100,000 used diapers recently were used to help pave 2.4 kilometers of a road in Llanarth, in western Wales.
“You’re not sure what to expect when you turn up to a nappy road,” said Ben Lake, who represents the area in Britain’s Parliament. But he says it “could be a game-changer for how we approach infrastructure in Wales.”
Wales, whose policies consider the interests of future generations as well as current ones, developed statutory recycling targets and that has encouraged creativity in terms of waste disposal. The Welsh Government’s drive to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2050 means the country now recycles 63% of its rubbish compared with England’s 45%.The used diapers are being used for everything from pin boards and insulation to paving a highway.
Rob Poyer, of NappiCycle, started trying to find out ways to recycle diapers – or nappies, as they’re called in the UK – in 2009 or so. After a lot of work, he found a way to shred the diapers that ended up making them into pellets that could be used in a range of products.
And NappiCycle is not alone. Pura is a new company that shares the goal of bringing a diaper recycling service to the whole of the UK.
Pura founders Guy and Abi Fennell were becoming parents themselves when they realized that 90% of baby wipes sold in the UK contained non-recyclable plastic, resulting in increased pollution, emissions, and an inevitable journey to landfill. In June 2020, Pura launched a line of baby wipes and sustainable nappies that are 100% plastic-free, biodegradable and come in a flushable version certified by Water UK as Fine to Flush.
A highway paved with recycled diapers may change the cloth vs. disposables debate. Washington Post, Feb. 18, 2022.
Recycling Wales’ dirty baby nappies in Ammanford. BBC, Apr. 27, 2019.
Waste not, want not: P&G venture aims to squeeze new life out of Italy’s dirty diapers. Reuters, Oct. 17, 2018