GBCSA / Green Trends / Tackling the environmental impact of disposable nappies

Tackling the environmental impact of disposable nappies

June 12, 2018

The current disposable nappy landfill problem is alarming: an estimated more than 3.5 billion soiled nappies, or close to 1.1 million tonnes per year. Adult incontinence (40 000 tonnes) and female hygiene products (1.3 million) add considerably to the problem. Little wonder, it is estimated that AHP products account for the 4th largest recyclable contributor by volume to landfill space worldwide.

The impact on the environment is devastating: increasing the collective aggregate of greenhouse gas emissions which in turn impact on climate change. Further downstream environmental harm is worth noting: possible ground water contamination and probable harm to human, bird and animal life.
Landfills pollute the local environment as harmful methane gases generated by decomposing organic waste are released into the atmosphere. Methane gas (greenhouse gas) can be more harmful than carbon dioxide which is harmful to all inhabitants in the close proximity of the landfill. Treating the landfills helps but South Africa has seen a proliferation of illegal landfills resulting in untreated ground works which will certainly affect soil, ground water in the area, humans, plants and the environment due to air pollution due to methane gasses. The situation is often worse in rural areas where the nappies are disposed in rivers and open areas. This indiscriminate dumping is made worse by the lack of service delivery in rural and township areas.

The National Waste Act No. 59 of 2008: National Environmental Management: Management Act: part 3 section 17 lays down the guidelines for dealing with landfill waste. Within the Act, AHP waste entering landfills can be ameliorated through recovery methods, and/or 100% recycling of the AHP to be reused into new products for new markets thus alleviating greenhouse gasses and depletion of natural resources normally associated with disposal and production of new products.

The GBCSA welcomes public sector and private sector efforts to tackle the AHP products problem. Notable among these is The ‘Green’ Knowaste process. Knowaste plans to establish a network of collection agents who will collect AHP products from hospitals, Old Age Homes, Retirement Homes, nursery /day care centres domestic residence and other locations. The products will then be transported to the Knowaste recycling plant where they will be 100% recycled and processed into fibres and plastics for industry production. New markets are identified for the resulting by-products which include the road making industry, wood working industry, construction industry, plastic components industry, and in the manufacturing of aromatics – a process which is currently being tested in the Netherlands, and which will most probably include Knowaste recycled AHP fibre.
According to a 2010 Deloitte, UK study the Knowaste ‘green’ recycling process has significant impact on the environment. The study was conducted to assess the Knowaste ‘Green’ recycling process environmental impact, with the control being the customary process of diverting AHP to landfill and incinerators in the UK. And the results:
– Based on 36 000 metric tonnes of AHP per annum recycled:
Saving of 22 536 metric tonnes of Greenhouse gas emissions per year
Equivalent to:
• 7 487 cars removed from the roads in the UK
• Annual carbon emissions of 2 064 UK citizens
• 102 436 LCD televisions switched off
Reduction in environmental impacts being:
• Toxicity impacts to humans reduction of up to 97%
• Toxicity impacts to animals reduction of up to 99%
• Toxicity impacts to plants reduction of up to 99%
• Acid rain impacts reduction of up to 48%

• Resource depletion reduced by up to 54%
• Eutrophication reduction of up to 93%

It is clear that much more needs to be done by all concerned to deal with this problem. For more information, visit

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