The Foul–But Very Necessary–Business of Diaper Recycling

The roof of your home–or even the paper in your office–may soon be made from dirty diapers.


Babies in the United States go through about 24 million diapers a year, contributing 3.4 million tons of waste to landfills. And, worldwide, the impact is too foul to contemplate: The average baby needs about 6,000 diapers before becoming potty-trained. There are a lot of babies in the world.

Disposable diapers are a major environmental problem–a cause of water contamination and landscape blight, and a challenge not likely to be solved with alternative products. And that’s before we even talk about other “absorbent hygiene products” (AHPs) like feminine hygiene and incontinence pads, which have their own place in landfill hell.

Help may be at hand–and elsewhere–though.

A Canadian company has developed a method of stripping out up to 98% of the plastic and fiber from AHPs and re-using the material to make products such as roof tiles, plastic components, tubing, and recycled paper.

The process isn’t new–the company has been around since the late-1980s. But the economics of AHP-recycling may finally be viable–at least in places that are trying to cut their landfill use.

Knowaste, which is originally from Toronto, is opening its first U.K. facility this week, and plans to invest to $39.6 million in five facilities across the country in the next four years, including in Scotland and London. CEO Roy Brown says the plants will eventually handle about a fifth of Britain’s AHP supply, which totals 1 million tons a year. 


It’s no accident that Knowaste has chosen the U.K. With one of the worst landfill problems in Europe, Britain has been dubbed the “dirty man of the Europe“, and needs to find ways of diverting as much material as it can. 

Londoners, for example, produce 1,150 pounds of garbage per year, the fifth-worst of the EU’s 24 capitals. And half of that–2.2 million tons overall per year–ends up in landfills. Diapers account for about 5% of domestic waste.

Founded in 1989, Knowaste has built facilities in Canada, the Netherlands, and California. But in each case the numbers didn’t make sufficient sense for the plants to get established (though the company did stay in Holland for 10 years). Bountiful and cheap landfill space in the U.S., and high rates of incineration in Holland, pulled against recycling things like diapers.

The U.K., on the other hand, has relatively few landfill alternatives, and a hefty landfill tax that has quickly pushed up prices. Local councils already pay $88 per ton to dump waste in landfills, and the cost is set to rise further in the years ahead, giving a strong incentive to find other options. Knowaste doesn’t collect waste itself: It has partnered with companies that already gather AHP material from hospitals and nursing homes. (It isn’t squeamish pointing out the aging trend will mean a reliable supply of incontinence pads). 


More ingeniously of all, Knowaste is using a portion of the non-recyclable content to produce electricity, selling some back to the U.K. grid, and using the rest in the facility itself. 

“Our solution not only helps reduce the waste that goes to landfill, but also provides an environmentally sound method of capturing energy from the remaining waste stream, which will be used to power the plant and also sold back to the grid,” Brown says.

AHP waste may not be everyone’s cup of tea–or anyone’s cup of tea. But it’s welcome that someone is seeing gold where everyone else sees detritus. Hopefully, before too long the process will make sense in places other than the U.K. 

[Image: Flickr user abardwell]

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.