The Complex Messy World Of Diaper Waste

As Pampers, we have been caring for the happy, healthy development of babies worldwide for over 60 years, providing high-quality products that millions of parents, caregivers, healthcare professionals and communities trust every day. Over these years, diapers have become an essential necessity for generations of babies and parents, protecting, supporting and empowering them.

We believe in a science-led approach to environmental sustainability. Did you know that when assessing the carbon footprint of a disposable diaper1 along the entire life cycle, the production of raw materials has the biggest environmental impact? And the carbon footprint of diaper waste follows as the second contributor. But we know that for many parents waste is the most visible sustainability challenge when it comes to disposable diapers, so we’re on a journey to continue learning how we can reduce the amount of diapering waste through innovations, alliances and partnerships.

OK – we admit, we don’t have all the answers yet, it’s a complex task that we are committed to working on!

We are testing several different approaches on our journey to find waste management solutions. We have been running pilot programs to collect used diapers and trialing waste management technologies like mechanical recycling across the world. We’re learning from all these experiments. It is a complex and collective matter that involves several players in society, from manufacturers, to consumers, authorities, and waste operators. And the more we learn, the more we understand that there’s no single answer. Given the local differences that the waste issue presents, and the scale of change required, we need to explore a range of options to find some viable solutions to help address this challenge.

Our Learnings From Waste Pilots

Well, there are four learnings that we’ve found during our recent work trying to collect and treat diaper waste separately in certain countries.

1. Diaper waste is unique and anyone who has changed a diaper will probably know that already… here’s a quick recap.

A diaper can become about five times heavier after a baby wears it (yes that’s five!). Pee and poo in the diaper makes it difficult to store, because of its smell and potential public health concerns. Used diapers can contain pathogens and medicine residues. The unique nature of diaper waste means it requires frequent collection and transport to waste treatment facility if separate collection is planned. And also, sanitization is needed in any mechanical recycling solution.

Diaper waste is not common in each household. We estimate that only 1 in 123 households on average in the USA has a baby in diapers, this makes collection even more challenging in terms of logistics and economics.

So based on all of this, we looked at various collection pilot studies to learn how to get parents involved and interested in the collection of used diapers.

2. Parents’ attitudes to diaper waste collection vary.

We have partnered with various waste collection companies, municipalities and experts in the field and experimented with unique smart bins in Amsterdam and Kobe City to enable diaper waste collection.

As part of these pilots, we located our bins in areas most convenient for busy parents, like daycare centers or outside shops, we also encouraged parents to use them with an incentive program on our Pampers app. These collection pilots have helped us learn how parents would react to the idea of collecting used diapers.

3. We learned that recycling diapers is not easy!

We were the first diaper brand to test mechanical recycling of absorbent hygiene products in our quest towards potential waste solutions, but we encountered several challenges. The aim was to give used diapers a second life by breaking them down into their raw materials like synthetic fibers and cellulose. While this test helped gather learnings on the mechanical recycling of disposable diapers, it also showed obstacles for example:

  • Quality of secondary raw materials (SRM)

  • The Value of SRM

4. Lastly, one size doesn't fit all (just like our diapers!):

Local complexity is one of the most significant challenges to the collection and recycling of used diapers & wipes, as the infrastructure and regulations can vary, even from suburb to suburb.

What else are we doing for less waste?

Re-thinking Materials and Waste
  • Our parent company P&G’s partnership with a team from the University of Michigan has developed a technique to untangle the absorbent polymers from diapers and wipes and recycle them into materials similar to the adhesives used in sticky notes and bandages. The results have been recently published in Nature Communications.

  • P&G has collaborated with environmental sustainability experts Fraunhofer UMSICHT and chemical company SABIC on an innovative circular economy pilot project to demonstrate the feasibility of closed-loop recycling of single-use face masks. Face masks contain materials similar to some of the materials used in disposable diapers – so while this technique is important for the growing amount of face mask pollution, it may also be further developed to recycle diapers. You can read more here

From everything we’ve learned, it’s clear that there is no single answer that will end diaper waste tomorrow. We are applying these insights to the next phase of our journey, and we’re committed to developing more sustainable choices for parents while expanding our quest towards circularity. We’re dedicated to reducing diapering waste, stay tuned as we share our key findings with the industry so we can all advance together to help make the world a better place for every baby!