"The diapers are very gross, horrible, but the shipping containers hold 100% of the smell," assures Terracycle’s Albe Zakes. "We tested this by hiding them around the office and seeing if anyone noticed; they did not."
He may be joking, but the environmental dangers of dirty diapers are serious business, both in eco-impact and, Terracycle hopes, in profit potential.
Disposable diapers take centuries to biodegrade. The average baby soils about 8,000 of them before toilet training kicks in, according to the EPA. And now that disposable diapers are standard issue for American newborns, the stinky sacks add up to 3.7 million tons of municipal waste each year, up from 350,000 tons in 1970 (PDF). That means that 2.3% of landfill waste in the U.S. is diapers (PDF), about the same as mechanical paper: phonebooks and other non-recycled paper waste. "We want to make a meaningful dent in that number," Zakes says. "Consumer involvement and commitment will determine the end success."
It’s not that there aren’t options for recycleable or reusable diapers already, it’s that parents don’t choose them. So where Terracycle feels it can make a difference is in getting those same parents to actually turn over the used diapers, instead of trashing them. It’s a tall order considering how unpleasant they are to handle, but this is the business of upcycling: taking what is trash to most people and turning it into cash for others. So, like they’ve done with other waste streams—industrial organic waste to feed worms for fertilizer, juice pouches to make school bags—Terracycle wants to build a for-profit system of collection for a nasty waste product. Under the plan, Terracycle will station collection containers at diaper hot spots like daycare centers and then remove the redolent pouches en masse, paying the hosts a token amount for their trouble.
Back at Terracycle’s New Jersey headquarters or at a partner processor, the potentially toxic fecal matter will be neutralized (Zakes says with energy efficient gamma rays—but again, he’s joking), the plastic casing will be separated from the paper-based insides and new raw materials will be processed from the component parts, and then sold.
The absorbent material, after being sanitized, can be used for pet products like "doggie pee pads," or for a fiber additive in concrete. The plastic parts will join Terracycle’s existing plastic blends from other products they already make to eventually become things like plastic "wood" for park benches, picnic tables, or shipping pallets. Park goers won’t ever know they’re sitting on benches built from dirty diapers.
To fund the mass diaper extraction, Terracycle is looking for a big brand to play corporate sponsor, someone who wants to stamp their logo on a smell securing box in daycare centers across the country. Huggies already sponsors a diaper packaging upcycling partnership at daycare centers with Terracycle, so they’re likely the leading contender for branding the expanded baby waste collection program. Depending on the final deal, diaper donors will be paid between two and 10 cents per dirty diaper.
This is a promising waste-reducing move, but it’s certainly not the first time diaper recycling has been tried. The U.K. has had great success at reducing municipal waste of all sorts by instituting heavy financial incentives for programs just like this. The company Knowaste has been recycling diapers and other hygiene products for years in Europe, and recently opened a diaper recycling plant in the U.K. that is powered by the diapers themselves, with plans for three more in the coming years.
In the U.K., towns are taxed for the amount of trash they fail to recycle, which has dropped the percentage of waste sent to landfills from 79% in 2000 to 43% in 2010, according to Knowaste, which cites the trend as the reason they’ve set up shop in the U.K. despite being a U.S.-owned company. "We are a waste treatment specialist first and foremost and work with the existing collectors and waste management experts in the sectors who bring the wastes to us," says Knowaste’s Bronwen Jameson.
Because the U.S. seems unlikely to institute similar financial incentives for towns or waste collectors, Terracycle is essentially in the waste collection business as well as waste processing. Starting new markets is tough, and often a dirty business.