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Adult diapers, or incontinence pads as they are otherwise known, amounted to less than one percent of total landfill waste just two decades ago. Today, that number is closer to 7% and climbing. These pads are typically made from plastic and other non-biodegradable products meaning that not only is the volume of space they are filling up rising, but they're also not breaking down any time soon. With a rising aging population and more incontinence pads headed to landfills, are there any alternatives on the horizon?Since diapers are meant to be leak-proof and hold the water in, oftentimes they have a plastic outer shell. While this plastic outer shell does its job in terms of avoiding messes, it also means that when it goes to the landfill, it's setting up permanent shop there for up to hundreds of years. The "filling" of the diaper is typically made from a wood-pulp and petroleum-based synthetic-polymer filling. While the wood-pulp will eventually break down, the synthetic polymer is not going anywhere any time soon. Yet, these pulp materials are typically coated in chemicals that are not only harmful to your health but also won't break down in a landfill. Plus, once these two fillers are mixed with the human waste, it's hard to separate the biodegradable parts out so nothing biodegrades.
Green Diaper Alternatives
Currently there are no compostable adult diapers on the market (at least none that we could find. The California Integrated Waste Management Board even states that there is no benefit to purchasing biodegradable diapers if they are just going into a landfill as nothing really breaks down easily in a landfill, even biodegradable items. So, what is a green guy or gal to do? One option is to use a booster pad or "diaper doubler" as they are known. The boosters come in different sizes and are removable so you can use the outer part more than once. Diaper boosters can also help save money since you just have to purchase the removable pads instead of the entire diaper for each use.
Another option is a "long-lasting" diaper typically found in Europe. In the states you will more than likely have to order these online as you won't be able to find them in stores or supermarkets. The long-lasting diapers allow the wearer to keep the diaper on for up to 8 hours rather than having to change every 2 to 3. While this means fewer diapers in the landfill it also means saving money by wearing fewer diapers each day. Abena, Molicare and Secure-X Plus are a few of the labels to look for.
One diaper manufacturer, EcoBaby, has suggested vermicomposting the diapers (granted, these are baby diapers, not adult ones but the idea is the same). While this probably makes most people squeamish to think about red worms composting their diapers in their backyard, it's not a bad idea for facilities with large volumes of disposable diapers. Hospitals and senior care facilities for example could set up a vermicomposting system to take care of the large volume of diapers that they manage each day.
Diaper Recycling and Knowaste
In 2002, the city of Santa Clarita, CA launched a diaper recycling test program for 200-500 residents. Specially designated bags were used and the diapers were then sanitized and disassembled to be put into new items. The exterior diaper material is recycled into a variety of construction materials while the inner pulp material is used for shoes, oil filters and wall paper. Knowaste, the diaper recycler, also has programs in Canada and the Netherlands. The Santa Clarita facility can process up to a ton of diapers an hour. Knowaste recycles baby diapers, adult incontinence pads and feminine hygiene pads.