The disposal of adult diapers is a fascinating-albeit tough-subject to tackle. But it is a necessary one, with the overall rise in adult incontinence product usage and subsequent rise in disposal. This article is the first in a short series that will address the disposability of adult incontinence products and how their material composition relates to the biodegradability and composting of these products. Before starting, I should say that the discussion here is based on best estimates and conjecture; after years of experience in this field, I've come across lots of different articles, discussions, facts and figures about diaper disposal, although I am by no means an expert in this subfield of the industry. The ideas expressed below are simply my personal opinions regarding the disposal of adult incontinent products and how they affect today's landfills.
How Much Are We Really Talking About? About two decades ago, adult disposable diapers accounted for less than 1% of the nation's landfill. By comparison, baby diapers-a much smaller product with a much larger market share-totaled 2% of landfill. Today, those numbers are quite different: adult disposable diapers comprise nearly 7% of the nation's landfill while baby diapers are down in the 2-3% range. These numbers are incredibly significant. In a nation of more than 300 million people, with millions of tons of waste products being thrown out each day, nearly 10% of all trash is made up of soiled disposable diapers.
As the baby boomer market continues to age and more disposable diapers are consumed, this number is bound to grow. If some industry estimates are correct regarding increased need and use of adult disposable incontinence products, the percentage of the landfill will also grow.
What's Going into the Landfill? So what exactly is being thrown away, and is any of it biodegradable? These are great questions-ones my eco-conscious staff and customers ask me all of the time. Most disposable adult incontinence products are made of a few key components:
Outer Shell: Usually made of a plastic film, the outer shell is the component that ensures full containment in the diaper. Because it is meant to be impermeable, the plastic shell or backing is one of the key pieces that is not biodegradable and does not easily to break down in a landfill.
Pulp Filling: The absorbent part of adult diapers, the pulp is the fluffy filling inside the diaper that often contains superabsorbent polymer (SAP), the truly absorbent feature of the diaper. The pulp is wood-based; the SAP is petroleum-based. The wood-based fluff is fairly biodegradable when left to decompose on its own; the synthetic polymer, however, is not. The problem is, these items are paired together as the absorbent part of the diaper that contains the human waste, and furthermore, they are contained by a larger plastic shell. Therefore, it is hard to separate the biodegradable item (the pulp) from the rest of it, which would allow it to decompose.
Assorted Components: In addition to the outer shell and the absorbent filling, diapers are made up of a number of other components, including cloth-like non-woven, plastic tape, elastic cuffs, glue and more. These other odds and ends in diaper construction vary per brand and diaper, and are only able to break down in varying degrees, depending on their material composition. Generally speaking, most of these items are plastic-based and therefore take a long time to decompose.
In my coming posts, we'll cover how to dispose of diapers at home, some of the sanitary and health-related issues with diaper disposal, as well as disposal alternatives: composting, recycling government/private sector regulation and much more. There's a lot to cover, so stay tuned!
Bob has been writing articles online for nearly 2 years now. Not only does this author specialize in Adult Diaper Disposal: Environmental Awareness
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