In July 2017, Prigi Arisandi was standing in the Surabaya River in East Java, Indonesia and counting layers. In an hour, “176 layers floated in front of my face,” he said.
The Indonesian biologist, who won the Goldman Environmental Award in 2011 for his efforts to stem the pollution that is pouring into Surabaya, has decided to focus on diaper waste. He started the Diaper Evacuation Brigade, a movement of volunteers who travel across Indonesia, wearing hazmat suits to fish for used diapers in the country’s rivers.
Indonesia produces around 6 billion disposable diapers per year. Many end up being dumped in rivers and seas, partly because the country lacks waste management infrastructure, but also because some believe burning babies’ diapers could cause them pain. Disposable diapers made up 21% of the waste found in waterways in 15 Indonesian cities, according to a 2018 World Bank study. In water, layers break down into microplastics, leach chemicals, damage marine life, and potentially contaminate drinking water, most of which comes from rivers.
The problem of disposable diaper waste is not limited to Indonesia. While discussions of single-use plastics tend to be dominated by straws and plastic bags, disposable diapers are one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste around the world. They are typically made from several types of plastic, including a waterproof back layer of polyethylene and an inner layer of polypropylene.
A baby can go between 4,000 and 6,000 diapers by the time he is clean. Each year, approximately 167 billion disposable diapers are produced, requiring 248.5 million barrels of crude oil. Due to the mixture of materials and the addition of human waste, they are very difficult to recycle. The vast majority end up in landfills, where they take hundreds of years to decompose. Globally, more than 300,000 disposable diapers per minute are sent to landfill, incinerated or end up in the environment, including the ocean.
The problem is, disposable diapers are easy and convenient. Parents may be too overwhelmed to cope with the extra work of reusable diapers, they may lack adequate washing and drying facilities, or be put off by the upfront costs. As a result, sales of disposable diaper companies are booming in some regions, especially Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, with its growing population and middle class.
An alternative is that of “biodegradable” or “compostable” diapers, which seem to promise a solution to this complex problem: the convenience of a single-use product with less guilt over what happens to it after use.
However, the vast majority of biodegradable or compostable diapers still contain plastic elements, often the sticky tabs or the outer film. “The best example I could find was made of around 80% biodegradable material,” said Dr Charlotte Lloyd, an environmental biogeochemist at the University of Bristol, who studies the layers available in the UK. .
After using a diaper, Lloyd said, “you tend to roll it up, stick it on, and then basically all of your biodegradable materials will be protected in that outer shell.” When the layers end up in landfills – which almost always will be – biodegradable materials will have little contact with the oxygen they need to biodegrade. “So you spend more money on a biodegradable diaper, thinking you’re doing the right thing. But in fact, he’s still in a landfill, ”she said.
It’s a situation Laura Crawford, also based in the UK, finds incredibly frustrating. After a foiled attempt to use reusable diapers with her baby – struggling with a toddler and newborn with colic “[they] were just the last thing I could face ”- she decided to create an eco-friendly range. In 2018, she launched Mama Bamboo, producing diapers from sustainably sourced FSC-certified bamboo with compostable bioplastic liners.
However, eliminating plastic from fossil fuels is still “only half the answer,” she said. Its layers decompose in hot composters, which few people have, or industrial composters, which are not available in the UK.
“Right now we have a system where people are willing to pay up front for expensive diapers and then charge their government – and the environment to pay – to landfill them,” Dr. Mark Miodownik, materials scientist at the university. College of London. He worked with Mama Bamboo and other biodegradable diaper companies on a research project to set up a complete industrial composting system for plastics.
Small-scale efforts to create better systems for compostable diapers are increasing around the world. The Parisian social enterprise Les Alchimistes collects the compostable diapers in the nurseries and brings them to a composting site on the outskirts of the city. She tests the compost, specifies Maïwenn Mollet, director of the diapers project, “to verify that there is no ecotoxicity and also to study microplastics”. Once they prove the quality of the compost, they plan to sell it to farms. Kim and Jason Graham-Nye, founders of gDiapers, are testing their 100% compostable diaper in West Papua, Indonesia. They work with an Indonesian company to deposit and collect diapers on a daily basis, and to compost used diapers locally.
Other efforts focus on increasing the use of reusable diapers. These create less waste going to landfill, but their environmental credentials are not always clear. Many are made from cotton, a thirsty crop often grown with lots of pesticides. They also require washing, which can be water and energy intensive. The footprint of reusable items depends on how they are used, according to a 2008 UK Government analysis, which found that line drying, full load washing and using them for the following children would make reusable items a better environmental choice than disposable items.
In the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu – where disposable diapers make up 27% of the country’s waste – local social enterprise Mamma’s Laef and UK-based Bambino Mio have provided modern reusable diapers to 150 mothers. Here, the diapers tend to be hand washed and line dried. The pilot was very popular, said Jack Kalsrap, who runs Mamma’s Laef with his wife, Mary, because “it can be expensive for families to buy a pack of reusable baby diapers.”
Arisandi also wants to make reusable diapers more accessible in Indonesia. He calls on the government to crack down on single-use diapers and subsidize reusable cloth diapers to make upfront costs more affordable. He also wants diaper companies to be forced to take responsibility for the waste produced by their products.
Experts around the world are talking about a lack of policies regarding disposable diapers. “To date, there is no legislation [in the EU] regularize diapers, ”said Larissa Copello, consumer and production campaign manager at Zero Waste Europe. The organization wants incentives for reusable diapers as well as pressure on large diaper companies to make their products more durable.
“There is certainly a better way than disposable plastic products, but at the moment the system is just very flawed,” Lloyd said, adding: “We are morally obligated to do something better than what we are doing. currently.”