Reuse? Compost? Dump? Solving the eco-conundrum of nappies

Disposable diapers are one of the biggest factors in plastic waste. Efforts to address the problem are popping up all over the world

In July 2017, Prigi Arisandi stood in the Surabaya River in East Java, Indonesia, and counted nappies. In one hour, “176 diapers floated in front of my face,” he said.

The Indonesian biologist, who won the Goldman environmental prize in 2011 for his efforts to stem pollution flowing into the Surabaya, decided to make nappy waste his focus. He launched the Diaper Evacuation Brigade, a movement of volunteers who travel across Indonesia, wearing hazmat suits to fish used nappies out of the country’s rivers.

Indonesia produces an estimated 6bn disposable nappies a year. Many end up thrown into rivers and the sea, in part because the country lacks waste infrastructure but also because of a belief among some that burning babies’ nappies could cause them pain. Disposable nappies made up 21% of the waste found in the waterways of 15 Indonesian cities, according to a 2018 World Bank study. In the water, nappies break down into microplastics, leach chemicals, damage marine life and potentially contaminate drinking water, most of which comes from the rivers.

Prigi Arisandi examines polluted river water
Indonesian biologist Prigi Arisandi examines polluted river water in Surabaya, in the East Java province. Photograph: Sigit Pamungkas/Reuters
The problem of disposable diaper waste is not confined to Indonesia. While discussions of single-use plastics tend to be dominated by plastic straws and bags, disposable nappies are one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste globally. They are typically made from several types of plastic, including a polyethylene waterproof back layer and a polypropylene inner layer.

A baby may get through 4,000-6,000 nappies by the time they are potty trained. Every year, an estimated 167bn disposable nappies are produced, requiring 248.5m barrels of crude oil. Because of the mix of materials, and the addition of human waste, they are very hard to recycle. The vast majority end up in landfill, where they take hundreds of years to break down. Globally, more than 300,000 disposable nappies a minute are sent to landfill, incinerated or end up in the environment, including the ocean.

The problem is disposable nappies are easy and convenient. Parents may be too overwhelmed to cope with the extra work of reusable nappies, they may lack adequate washing and drying facilities or be put off by upfront costs. As a result, disposable nappy companies’ sales are booming in some regions, particularly south-east Asian countries such as Indonesia, with its rising population and growing middle class.

One alternative is “biodegradable” or “compostable” nappies, which seem to promise a solution to this complex problem: the convenience of a single-use product with less guilt about what happens to it after use.

However, the vast majority of biodegradable or compostable nappies still contain plastic elements, often the sticky tabs or the outer film. “The best example that I could find was made out of around 80% of biodegradable materials,” said Dr Charlotte Lloyd, an environmental biogeochemist at the University of Bristol, who is researching nappies available in the UK.

After using a nappy, Lloyd said, “you tend to roll it up, stick it down, and then actually all of your biodegradable materials will be protected within that outer shell”. When the nappies end up in landfill – which almost all will – the biodegradable materials will have little contact with the oxygen they need to biodegrade. “So you spend more money on a biodegradable nappy, thinking that you’re doing the right thing. But actually, it’s just still sitting in landfill,” she said.

It’s a situation that Laura Crawford, also based in the UK, finds incredibly frustrating. After a thwarted attempt to use reusable nappies with her baby – struggling with a toddler and colicky newborn “[they] were just the last thing I could cope with” – she decided to create an eco range. In 2018, she launched Mama Bamboo, producing nappies from sustainably sourced, FSC-certified bamboo with compostable bioplastic liners.

We have a system where people are prepared to pay upfront for expensive nappies and then get their government to put them into landfill
Dr Mark Miodownik
However, eliminating fossil-fuel plastic is still “only half the answer”, she said. Her nappies break down in hot composters, which few people have, or industrial composters, which are not nationally available in the UK.

“At the moment, we have a system where people are prepared to pay upfront for expensive nappies and then get their government to pay – and the environment to pay – to put them into landfill,” said Dr Mark Miodownik, a materials scientist at University College London. He has been working with Mama Bamboo and other biodegradable nappy companies as part of a research project on establishing a comprehensive industrial composting system for plastics.

Small-scale efforts to create better systems for compostable nappies are popping up across the world. Paris-based social enterprise Les Alchimistes collects compostable nappies from childcare centres and takes them to a composting site on the outskirts of the city. It tests the compost, said Maïwenn Mollet, director of the nappies project, “to check there is no ecotoxicity and also to study microplastics”. Once they have proven the compost’s quality, they plan to sell it to farms. Kim and Jason Graham-Nye, founders of gDiapers, are trialling their 100% compostable nappy in West Papua, Indonesia. They work with an Indonesian company to do daily nappy drop-offs and collections, and to compost the used diapers locally.

Other efforts focus on increasing uptake of reusable nappies. These create less landfill waste but their environmental credentials are not always clear cut. Many are made out of cotton, a thirsty crop often grown with a lot of pesticides. They also require laundering, which can be water- and energy-intensive. Reusables’ footprint depends on how they are used, according to 2008 UK government analysis, which found that line-drying, washing in full loads and using them for subsequent children would make reusables a better environmental choice than disposables.

In the south Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu – where disposable nappies make up 27% of the nation’s rubbish – local social enterprise Mamma’s Laef and UK-based Bambino Mio have been providing modern reusable nappies to 150 mothers. Here, nappies tend to be hand washed and line dried. The pilot has been very popular, said Jack Kalsrap, who runs Mamma’s Laef with his wife, Mary, because “it can be expensive for families to set up buying a pack of reusable baby nappies”.

Arisandi wants to make reusable nappies more accessible in Indonesia, too. He’s calling on the government to crack down on single-use nappies and to subsidise reusable cloth nappies to make the initial costs more affordable. He also wants nappy companies to be forced to take responsibility for the waste their products produce.

Experts globally speak of a lack of policies around disposable nappies. “To date there’s no legislation [in the EU] regulating nappies,” said Larissa Copello, consumption and production campaigner at Zero Waste Europe. The organisation wants incentives for reusable nappies as well as pressure on big nappy companies to make their products more sustainable.

“There definitely is a better route than plastic disposables but, at the moment, the system is just very broken,” said Lloyd, adding, “we’re morally obliged to do something better than we’re currently doing.”

Plastic: Can’t live without it, can reinvent it!

The year 1907 was a time for celebration. Clever humans had invented a material that was more malleable than metal, more durable than wood and more cost-effective than glass. It was magic, and they called it… plastic. 

Soon, plastic could be found at Tupperware parties, bottling factories and in just about every household in the world. Moms were sending their kids to school with plastic lunch boxes, wives were taking groceries home in plastic shopping bags, and stores were ordering trolleys made of, you guessed it, plastic!

Since then, we’ve managed to produce a whopping 6.3 billion tons of plastic, and we’ve only recently stopped to realise the problem. We’ve filled our planet with one of the least biodegradable materials that has ever existed, and forgot to devise a plan for getting rid of it! Perhaps we’re not as smart as we thought back in 1907, huh?

Fast forward to 2020. Plastic waste has left us with rapidly rising landfills, polluted rivers and oceans, dying wildlife, and struggling tourism industries. In fact, it’s estimated that 8 million tons of plastic leak into the ocean every year. 

If we didn’t have a plan before, we need one now. As in right now! This plan needs to go where other waste disposal solutions have never gone before. It needs to be innovative, pioneering, down right GENIUS! 

You see, plastic is extremely tricky to destroy. We tried burning it, but that just gave off toxic chemicals like dioxins. We tried recycling it, but that’s just a way of delaying its eventual trip to the landfills, which means passing the problem on to our youth. 

People like Greta Thunberg will tell us to stop producing plastic altogether. She’s not wrong, but it’s more complicated than that. What do we do with the 6.3 billion tons that we’ve already created? What about the alternatives, which can actually be more environmentally damaging? 

For example, without plastic containers, the amount of food waste globally could have devastating effects on our planet. Nearly a quarter of our water supply is wasted in the form of uneaten food, and rotting food is a serious source of methane gas. If you don’t already know, this is a greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. You see the problem, don’t you?

Then there are products that still need plastic, because we haven’t found a more organic solution yet. Take feminine hygiene products, for example. The vast majority of pads and tampons are made, at least in part, of plastic. They can’t be recycled for sanitary reasons, and we haven’t yet found an alternative that aligns with cultural norms for female hygiene. 

What we’re trying to say is this. No matter how many magic lamps we rub, plastic production isn’t going to come to a standstill overnight. The phasing out of this troublesome material is going to be slow and complicated, and we need to do something while we wait. That ‘something’ is biodegradable plastic.

These are plastics that biodegrade through a series of biological processes in a landfill disposal environment. While regular plastics can take up to 1000 years to break down, biodegradable plastics are broken down at a comparatively rapid rate. Here’s how it works. 

The microorganisms that live in landfills feed off carbon and break it down into tiny bits. The problem is that the carbon in plastic exists in chains called polymers, and these are too long and hard for microorganisms to break down. Biodegradable Future’s organic additive changes the DNA of regular plastic so that microbes in landfills, oceans and soil can consume it more easily.

Biodegradable plastics can be just useful as regular plastics, too. They maintain their strength, they’re affordable, and the additive can be applied to the vast majority of plastic products. They can be foamed into packing materials, injection-moulded in modified conventional machines, and co-injected with other plastic materials like LDPE, PP, and HDPE.

Obviously, biodegradable plastics are just one piece of the ‘Save Our Planet’ puzzle. We still need to recycle, we still need to look for plastic alternatives that can be manufactured with minimal environmental impact, and we definitely still need to make an effort to safeguard our oceans from pollution. 

Still, Biodegradable Future’s organic additives are an attractive solution to a problem that is now a matter of urgency. If you’re interested in learning more about our additives, and how they could lower your company’s global footprint, get in touch with Dean Lynch at dean@biodegradablefuture.com

Our planet is drowning in plastic, and there’s more than one thing to do about it

The Earth is 71% water, you’ve probably heard that before. What you might not know is that, today, 6.9 km3 of our planet is plastic. That’s a scary-as-hell statistic, and it’s also sure-as-hell not what Mother Nature intended. 

It’s the reason over 100 million marine animals die every year from swallowing chip packets and sticking their cute little heads into empty bottles. It’s also why 8 out of 10 human babies, and almost all adults, have traces of plastic additives in their bodies. Yikes!

So, what to do, what to do? There’s an answer, but it’s not simple. It’s multifaceted, and requires the forward-thinking, conscious behaviour of a united human race (companies included!). Let’s break it down (pun intended). 

1. Stop using plastic for the things we can

If you ask most people, “stop using plastic” is the obvious solution. Get rid of the demand for plastic, and there won’t be any reason to make plastic, so the world is saved. Right? Well… not exactly. 

You see, plastic will probably always be a necessary material for certain products. Truthfully, plastic is sometimes the more eco-friendly solution! Take plastic shopper bags, for example. A reusable cotton bag requires so much more energy and carbon dioxide emissions to produce, that it has to be used 7100 times before it would have a lower impact on the environment than a plastic bag. 

Then, of course, there’s the plastic that already exists. There’s a lot of it, 335 million tons to be precise, and it needs to go somewhere. One option is to recycle and upcycle, but that’s really just delaying the process. After all, every plastic eventually ends up in the same smelly place – the landfill. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. We should try to stop plastic production with vehement determination. Slowing down the increase of plastics on Earth will have long term benefits for the planet. Still, we need to do MORE. Enter, biodegradable plastics!

2. Start using biodegradable plastic for the rest

The Industrial Revolution might have created a serious plastic problem, but we’ve also been getting smarter and more innovative as a human race. The proof? A ground-breaking plastic additive that causes plastics to biodegrade more quickly in a landfill disposal environment.

The science is actually quite simple. 

Microorganisms that live in landfills feed off carbon and break it down into tiny bits, but the carbon in plastic exists in chains called polymers. These are too long and hard for microorganisms to break down. So, Biodegradable Future’s organic additives change the DNA of regular plastic to make it more easily broken down when it comes into contact with microbes. 

This means that plastic in landfills is broken down at an accelerated rate. The bonus is that this additive doesn’t weaken the strength of the plastic, it’s cost-effective and easy to implement, and it’s EU and FDA compliant. 

3. Recycle and upcycle like your life depends on it (spoiler alert: it does!)

The importance of recycling has been understood and embraced by people for years. It’s the process of converting waste into materials that can be reused to make a new product. More recent, though, is the popular practice of upcycling. This is when discarded products (like fabric samples) are used to create products of higher value (like slippers). 

Sadly, only 10% of all plastic produced has actually been recycled. Still, even if this was 100%, recycling and upcycling are not a complete solution to plastic waste. They keep plastics out of the landfills for a while, but only for a while. Eventually, the final product ends up in a bin, and that bin is dumped in a landfill, and then what? 

Well, the pile grows bigger, smellier and more toxic, because plastics take up to 1000 years to decompose! Unless, of course, they’re made with Biodegradable Future’s organic additives!

If you’re interested in learning more about our additives, and how they could lower your company’s global footprint, get in touch with Dean Lynch at dean@biodegradablefuture.com

The biodegradable business: Why you don’t need smaller feet to reduce your carbon footprint

In 2019, Greta Thunberg became the youngest person to ever be named Time Magazine’s person of the year. An announcement that shook the world. 

As a plastic producing, purchasing or retailing company, this probably shook you more than the rest. Maybe it even inspired you. Either way, it was less about Greta, and more about the fact that caring for the environment is making headlines. It’s become popular! 

This means that ordinary people, just like your customers, choose to support companies with a smaller carbon footprint. As for everyone else, well, they fall victim to negative publicity – something easily achieved through today’s social media frenzy. This is a risk you can’t afford to take. 

So, what should you do? Make your ‘foot’ smaller by discontinuing plastic-related product lines? Sure, your footprint will be reduced, but so will your revenue. Little help that is if it puts you out of business. 

Maybe you should swap plastic for alternatives, like cotton? Wait, didn’t you recently read that cotton production uses far more energy, and releases far more carbon dioxide emissions, than plastic? There goes that idea. 

There is something you can do, though. A pioneering solution that many of the biggest companies around the world are embracing with wide-open arms. It’s called biodegradable plastic. 

What is biodegradable plastic, anyway?

Let’s start at the beginning, with regular plastics. Plastic is made up of carbon chains called polymers. The microorganisms that live in landfills feed off carbon and break it down into tiny bits. The problem with regular plastic is that the polymers are too long and hard for microorganisms to break down. So, our landfills pile up, and up, and up!

This is where Biodegradable Future’s organic additives come in. Our additives cause plastics to biodegrade through a series of biological processes in a landfill disposal environment. Whereas regular plastics can take up to 1000 years to break down, biodegradable plastics are broken down at a comparatively rapid rate. 

Why your brand depends on it

Ask me how biodegradable plastics will benefit your business, and I’ll ask you how much time you have. I could talk for hours about the positive impact on your brand appeal alone. 

You see, 70% of consumers between the ages of 15 and 20 want to buy goods from companies committed to sustainability. These consumers are your future, and you need to get their attention early on. 

This is probably why Nestlé launched their very own Institute of Packaging Sciences to explore the potential of biodegradable materials and systems. It’s also why Unilever announced its commitment to ensuring all of its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. 

This is a bandwagon you need to jump on. 

By leveraging biodegradable plastics, you’re making a statement that your company cares for the environment. More than that, you’re giving your customers a product they don’t need to feel guilty about. Every time they chuck it in the bin, they can rest assured that it’s going to break down into a natural humus that takes little to no space in a landfill. 

If you’re interested in learning more about our additives, and how they could lower your company’s global footprint, get in touch with Dean Lynch at dean@biodegradablefuture.com