One small town’s groundbreaking program may lead the way for recovering valuable materials from an unlikely waste.
Last November, a California community boldly did what few have done — or even imagined possible: They began to recycle their diapers. Just to be clear, this means dirty diapers, disposable bed liners and feminine hygiene products, technically known as absorbent hygiene products (AHPs).
Billions of diapers Only 2 percent of parents living in the U.S. are using reusable cotton diapers for their babies. Everyone else takes the more “convenient” route with the one-way, disposable diaper. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Washington) estimates that the country generates annually about 18 billion disposal diapers. That’s about one ton of disposable diapers per baby before toilet training.
EPA research also suggests that the average diaper takes about 500 years to decompose. American landfills are composed of about 1.5 to 4 percent by weight of AHPs. This amount is also on the rise, as the large baby boom generation gets older and consumption of adult incontinence products increases. Given these facts, it’s not surprising that AHP recycling is gaining interest.
In the beginning About 14 years ago, a mother from Ontario began to research possible solutions for this growing waste problem. After several years of raising money for research and development (and good timing, considering recent mandatory provincewide hikes in landfill tip fees designed to stimulate recycling), Knowaste LLC was born. The company’s first pilot facility opened in Mississauga, Ontario and then processed about 4,000 to 5,000 tons of AHPs. At the time tip fees (gate fees) were competitive with the cost of local landfills, at about $150 ($Cn) per metric ton. But it didn’t take long for Ontario’s waste to start flowing south to cheaper disposal options in the U.S. A few years later, Knowaste LLC shut its Ontario facility because it could not compete against the disposal alternatives. Throughout most of the 1990s, Knowaste LLC, now based in New York City, refined the recycling technology and began looking for opportunities in Europe and Asia where disposal costs were more cost competitive.