Tuesday, December 7

Re-use? Compost? Dump? Solving the ecological puzzle of diapers | Plastic

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

The Indonesian biologist, who won the Goldman environmental award in 2011 for his efforts to stem contamination Flowing into the Surabaya, he decided to make the diaper waste his attention. Launched the Diaper Evacuation Brigade, a movement of volunteers traveling through Indonesia, wearing hazmat suits to fish diapers used in the rivers of the country.

Indonesia produces approximately 6 billion disposable diapers per year. Many end up dumped into rivers and into the sea, partly because the country lacks a waste infrastructure, but also because some believe that burning babies’ diapers could cause them pain. Disposable diapers made up 21% of the waste found in the waterways of 15 Indonesian cities. according to a 2018 World Bank study. In water, diapers break down into microplastics, leak chemical, harm marine life and potentially contaminating drinking water, most of which comes from rivers.

Prigi Arisandi examines polluted river water
Indonesian biologist Prigi Arisandi examines polluted river water in Surabaya, East Java province. Photograph: Sigit Pamungkas / Reuters

The problem of disposable diaper waste is not limited to Indonesia. While discussions of single-use plastics tend to be dominated by plastic straws and bags, disposable diapers are one of the largest contributors to plastic waste globally. They are typically made from various types of plastic, including a waterproof polyethylene back layer and an inner polypropylene layer.

A baby can pass 4,000-6,000 diapers for when they are potty trained. Each year, it is estimated 167 billion disposable diapers are produced, requiring 248.5 million barrels of crude oil. Due to the mixing of materials and the addition of human waste, they are very difficult to recycle. The vast majority end up in landfills, where they take hundreds of years to decompose. Globally, more than 300,000 disposable diapers one minute they are sent to landfill, incinerated, or end up in the environment, including the ocean.

The problem is, disposable diapers are easy and convenient. Parents may feel too overwhelmed to cope with the added work of reusable diapers, they may lack adequate facilities for washing and drying, or they may feel discouraged by the upfront costs. As a result, disposable diaper companies sales are booming in some regions, particularly in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, with its growing population and growing middle class.

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

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

After wearing a diaper, Lloyd said, “you tend to roll it up, glue it on and then all your biodegradable materials will be protected inside that outer layer.” When diapers end up in the landfill, which almost all will do, biodegradable materials will have little contact with the oxygen they need to biodegrade. “So you spend more money on a biodegradable diaper, thinking you are doing the right thing. But actually, it’s still in the landfill, ”he said.

It’s a situation that Laura Crawford, also a UK resident, finds incredibly frustrating. After a frustrated attempt to use reusable diapers with her baby, struggling with a toddler and a colicky newborn “[they] they were the last thing he could afford ”- he decided to create an ecological range. In 2018, it launched Mama Bamboo, which produces diapers from sustainably sourced FSC certified bamboo with compostable bioplastic liners.

However, eliminating plastic from fossil fuels is still “only half the answer,” he said. Your diapers break down in hot composters, which few people own, or industrial composters, which are not available nationally in the UK.

“Right now, we have a system where people are willing to prepay for expensive diapers and then have the government pay, and the environment pay, to put them in landfills,” said Dr. Mark Miodownik , a materials scientist at the University. College London. He has been working with Mama Bamboo and other biodegradable diaper companies as part of a research project to establish a comprehensive industrial composting system for plastics.

Small-scale efforts to create better compostable diaper systems are emerging around the world. The Paris-based social enterprise Les Alchimistes collects compostable diapers from nurseries and takes them to a composting site on the outskirts of the city. Test the compost, said Maïwenn Mollet, director of the diaper project, “to check for ecotoxicity and also to study microplastics.” Once they have tested the quality of the compost, they plan to sell it to farms. Kim and Jason Graham-Nye, founders of gDiapers, are testing their 100% compostable diaper in West Papua, Indonesia. They work with an Indonesian company to collect and drop off diapers on a daily basis, and to compost used diapers locally.

Other efforts are focused on increasing the acceptance of reusable diapers. Are create less waste in landfills but its environmental credentials are not always clear. Many are made from cotton, a thirsty crop that is often grown with many pesticides. They also require washing, which can consume a lot of water and energy. The footprint of reusable items depends on how they are used, depending on UK Government Analysis 2008, who found that air drying, washing in full loads, and using them for later children would make reusable ones a better environmental choice than disposable ones.

Reusable diapers online
Reusable diapers reduce landfills, but have their own environmental costs to weigh. Photography: Alamy

In the archipelago of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, where disposable diapers make up 27% of the nation’s garbage – local social enterprise Mamma’s Laef and UK-based Bambino Mio have provided 150 mothers with modern reusable diapers. Here, diapers tend to be hand washed and air 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 buy a pack of reusable baby diapers.”

Arisandi also wants reusable diapers to be more accessible in Indonesia. Call on the government to crack down on single-use diapers and subsidize reusable cloth diapers to make upfront costs more affordable. He also wants diaper companies to be forced to take responsibility for the waste their products produce.

Experts around the world speak of the lack of policies around disposable diapers. “To date there is no legislation [in the EU] regulating diapers, ”said Larissa Copello, Zero Waste Europe consumer and production activist. The organization wants incentives for reusable diapers, as well as pressure on large diaper companies to make their products more sustainable.

“There is definitely a better route than plastic disposables, but right now the system is badly broken,” Lloyd said, adding, “We are morally obligated to do better than we are currently doing.”


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