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Americans toss 20 billion diapers per year. This seaweed version could change that

Plus, your baby will look like an eco-friendly sumo wrestler.

Americans toss 20 billion diapers per year. This seaweed version could change that
[Photo: courtesy The James Dyson Foundation]

The invention of the disposable diaper was a godsend to new parents. It’s hard enough dealing with the grueling schedule of round-the-clock diaper changes, let alone pinning and hand-washing cloth diapers. Brands like Pampers and Huggies really did parents a solid by inventing diapers that could be conveniently thrown out.

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[Photo: courtesy The James Dyson Foundation]

But of course, there’s a flip side: Disposable diapers also come with a massive environmental footprint. On average, 20 billion disposable diapers are thrown out in the United States every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s the equivalent of 3.5 million tons of waste. And modern diapers aren’t just made of paper and cotton, but also plastic polymers that soak up and trap fluid, plastic outer shells that keep the diapers waterproof, and chemicals like bleach and perfumes that mask the smelliness. It’s unclear how all of these materials and chemicals impact a baby’s health—but it’s quite clear how they hurt the environment. Diapers don’t biodegrade, but sit in landfills for hundreds of years, slowly releasing toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases.

[Photo: courtesy The James Dyson Foundation]

For years, environmentally conscious parents have relied on cloth diapers, generally made from cotton, a crop that requires a lot of water and has a large carbon footprint. But Dezeen reports that Luisa Kahlfeldt, a design student at the Swiss design school ECAL, has come up with a better alternative: She’s developed a new non-cotton reusable cloth diaper.

[Photo: courtesy The James Dyson Foundation]

The diapers are made from a blend of seaweed and eucalyptus called SeaCell. The material is more sustainable to produce than the cotton cloth diapers on the market. And SeaCell also happens to be naturally antibacterial and full of antioxidants, so it is actually good for baby’s skin. It’s called the Sumo because, well, your baby will look like a little sumo wrestler in it.

Sumo is made up of three parts, all made from SeaCell. There’s a soft inner layer that makes contact with the baby’s skin, an absorbent inner core, and a waterproof outer layer to prevent any leaks. This outer layer is made in partnership with a Swiss company called Schoeller, which makes a biodegradable, recyclable, waterproof fabric called EcoRepel that does not erode with repeated washing.

To make sure that the entire diaper was biodegradable, Kahlfeldt had to find a way to make it easy to tie the diaper on without relying on traditional elastic bands made from plastic. Her solution was a method of knitting natural yarns called Natural Stretch. This approach gives the yarns 20% elasticity, Dezeen says.

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Sumo has already started receiving accolades from the design industry. It was the 2019 winner of the prestigious James Dyson Awards, and is under consideration for the international round of the competition.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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