October 23rd, 2015
by Hilary Vick
The news that nappy recycling specialist Knowaste is looking to open a new facility will receive rather a lukewarm welcome – at least from those of us engaged in trying to minimise the environmental impact of nappies by promoting reusables. Their plan, submitted on 14th September, is for a new absorbent hygiene product (AHP) recycling plant in West London, which would take in disposable nappies, adult incontinence and feminine hygiene products, using autoclave and shredding technology to recover plastics and fibres for recycling.
This comes two years since the first UK Knowaste plant, a 36,000 tonnes per annum facility based in West Bromwich, was shut down – after just 20 months in operation. The suggestion was that its closure was due to high operating costs and a lack of contracts for sale of the end products. Local authorities and businesses that had procured Knowaste’s services were left with nowhere to send their AHP. Knowaste previously operated a plant in Arnhem, the Netherlands, but this also closed down in 2007 after operating for 8 years, due to a lack of feedstock and competition from new incinerators. I understand that the plant was also struggling to find markets for its outputs.
Many nappy returns
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of local authorities are looking seriously at following in the footsteps of early adopters such as Bury and Falkirk by reducing the frequency of their residual waste collections to three weekly or less. Worries about vermin and odours arising from food waste can be addressed by collecting that material separately and more frequently. However, AHP waste also gives rise to concerns in the context of less frequent residual waste collections. AHP waste also causes problems as a contaminant in co-mingled household recycling, with members of the public seeming to mistakenly think that used disposable nappies are recyclable.
Providing an alternative outlet for AHP waste could therefore have several advantages:
- It could remove a key argument deployed against reducing residual waste collection frequencies;
- The risk of problematic contamination in the dry recycling stream is reduced; and
- A share of the AHP material will also be recycled.
However, recycling Knowaste’s way certainly isn’t the only option. New Zealand has pioneered the composting of AHP, a process which can be made viable at relatively small scale and low infrastructure cost, which allows plants to be sited close to the urban areas they serve. So, is recycling disposable AHP the best available option?
According to Knowaste, its process allows more material to be recovered: one AHP plant is said to generate annually enough reused fibre to save 122,400 trees, reclaim enough plastic to save 4 million litres of oil and save enough natural gas to heat 1,423 homes a year. That said, it also has environmental costs – it uses a lot of energy and water. It also needs to be done at a large scale to make it economically viable, and needs a constant supply of feedstock to keep it running. Knowaste has estimated that the UK market is only likely to support five or six of its AHP recycling plants. With so few facilities, many authorities’ waste would have to travel long distances, probably by road – not a great example of the proximity principle at work.
Of course, the environmental impacts of single-use nappies are not limited to their collection and disposal. There are also substantial manufacturing, packaging and distribution impacts associated with of the use of 6-7,000 “disposable” nappies per child. In a more circular economy, we will need to give greater focus to the conservation of resources, and despite their convenience, single use nappies could fall out of favour with policymakers – and perhaps even with more members of the public.
A wash with ideas
Surely, recycling AHP is a means of addressing a problem within the old, linear economy. Rather than invest in a Knowaste plant, a more genuinely circular approach would be to try to create the conditions in which small, local reusable nappy businesses can develop and grow.
Many local authorities have tried to incentivise real nappy use, but in the absence of instant results some have quickly concluded that the public doesn’t want washable nappies. However, behavioural change is a slow process, and in this case there are several barriers to change that need to be addressed. For example, parents are given free samples of disposables via Bounty packs, while Pampers’ sponsors the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), the most influential parenting charity in the UK. And, of course, there is the expectation of free and convenient disposal of nappy waste. These sorts of things make disposables appear to be the norm. Recycling nappies could reinforce this, with the perverse effect of reducing uptake of reusables.
Ask parents what the key barrier to choosing reusables might be, and they’re likely to highlight the laundry effort involved. It’s a particular problem for those living in flats and houses with little outdoor drying space. A nappy laundry service removes the problem, and there are interesting international examples of alternatives to normal commercial laundries that could allow a laundry service to leverage in significant social and environmental benefits. In Cleveland, Ohio, the Evergreen co-operative laundry offers employment opportunities for local people and meets the needs of local institutions while aiming to minimise environmental impacts. It is disappointing that, at the moment, even in cities the uptake of washable nappies is not sufficiently high to support a local nappy laundry with a dedicated collection and delivery service.
A bum deal?
There could yet be some middle ground to the disposable vs reusable nappy debate. For example, since the 1960s most “disposable” nappies have contained superabsorbent polymers (SAPs), which increase their environmental impact. However there is now a single-use nappy on the market that goes back to the original conception of the disposable nappy, where a single-use pad (which doesn’t contain SAPs) sits inside a reusable cover. These nappies are potentially compostable if the collection and treatment infrastructure were available.
There are also low waste alternatives that are attracting attention from the public including baby-led potty training (BLPT) where nappy waste goes straight to the sewage system and much less nappy waste is generated. The latter delivers public health and environmental benefits and is spreading through word of mouth and social media.
In the end, the big question is whether councils, or others, will be willing to pay for Knowaste’s treatment. Recycling AHP can be more expensive than residual waste treatment, once collection and haulage are taken into account. Knowaste expects that initially its feedstock will come from carehomes, hospitals and nurseries, and that private services will spring up to offer household AHP collections. The company’s experience in West Bromwich indicates that there are people willing to pay extra for nappy recycling – and that was before less than fortnightly residual waste collections were on the cards.
Indeed, councils may find such collections offer good value for money if they are the key to unlocking public acceptance of monthly residual waste collections, with all the benefits in terms of cost savings and recycling performance they could bring. If Knowaste could provide a reliable solution at a reasonable price, then despite it being preferable to encourage take-up of reusables, there might be no shortage of local authority takers for its services.