Could Disposable Diaper Waste Fertilize Food?

Once that diaper comes off it could become fodder for the landfill, or better yet, fodder for mushrooms. (Photo: Lana K/Shutterstock).

The waste created by disposable diapers is a considerable environmental problem. There are no easy solutions for fixing the problems that the plastic, gel-filled throw-aways that end up in landfills by the hundreds of millions each year cause. But that doesn’t stop innovators from trying to find solutions — turning them into things like patio furniture and roof shingles.

Now one Mexican scientist, Rosa María Espinosa Valdemar from Autonomous Metropolitan University, Azcapotzalco, is experimenting with using the diapers as fertilizer for oyster mushrooms, and early results are encouraging.

Valdemar says, "The idea came after considering that mushrooms feed on cellulose, material present in diapers, but they also possess non-biodegradable synthetic elements such as polyethylene, polypropylene, and superabsorbent gel (sodium polyacrylate) which collects fluids."

Only diapers soiled with liquid are used, and they aren’t just thrown on the ground as-is to be used as fertilizer. First, they’re sterilized, and then they’re ground and mixed with lignin, a substance that is extracted from plants that mushrooms need to grow.

About 80 percent of the volume and weight of the diapers degrades in approximately two and a half months through this process. The end result is edible oyster mushrooms that Valdamer and his team have personally consumed. An analysis of the mushrooms found no contaminents or infectious organisms and “the contents of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals are the same as that of commercial yeast.”

Does this mean you’ll be seeing diaper-fertilized mushrooms on your grocery store shelf in the near future? Not at all. Although the scientists tried them, they don’t anticipate these mushrooms will be used for human consumption. Instead, the mushrooms would be ground up and used as supplements in animal feed.

There’s another benefit to this process beyond reducing landfill waste. The mushrooms grow remnants of the gel material in diapers that’s used to retain liquid so diapers don’t leak. Those remnants can be mixed into soils to help with moisture retention, reducing the need for irrigation of plants.

I first read about this disposable diaper experiment on SustainaBlog, where blogger Jeff McIntire-Strasburg noted that while there are a number of “yuck” factors going on here, “if California and Australia maintain their levels of drought, gel remnant that holds moisture may sound like a pretty good solution for farmers there.”

So far, the mushroom experiments haven’t left the lab. There are no dirty-diaper mushroom farms planned, no cows being raised to provide diaper-fed beef, and no California tomato farms retaining moisture in the soil using diaper gel. Although if there were, and more research finds it to be perfectly safe, I think I could get past the “yuck” factor and support this. Could you?