Are Diapers Biodegradable? (3 Ways to Manage Disposed Diapers) 

In this article, it shall be explored whether diapers are biodegradable or not. Generally, there are two types of diapers: cloth & disposable. Cloth diapers are made up of natural materials whereas disposable diapers are made up of both natural and synthetic materials. 

More than 90 percent of the population uses disposable diapers and therefore this article shall explain and explore the context of disposable diapers more. 

Other than that, the article shall also shed some light on some aspects and topics associated with diapers’ biodegradability and disposal including: 

  • What is biodegradability?
  • Why is the biodegradability of diapers important? 
  • What materials are diapers made of? 
  • What happens when you throw away diapers? 
  • Can diapers be biodegradable in the future? 
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) related to diapers’ biodegradability.

Are Diapers Biodegradable? 

No, diapers are not biodegradable. Disposable diapers (majorly used diapers) are made up of both natural and synthetic materials.

Natural materials such as cotton may degrade in months but synthetic materials take up hundreds of years to degrade also leaving away toxic waste. 

The majority of the diapers end up in landfills where they take up between 3 to 40 percent of landfill space. Diapers are the third largest consumer product and this implies that diapers’ biodegradability is a matter of prime importance for environmentalists and society at large. 

What is Biodegradability? 

Biodegradability can be explained as a natural process of chemical breakdown into simpler substances by various drivers of nature including microbes or exposure to the environment. Biodegradability can also be termed as rotting or decomposition. 

The general rule of thumb related to biodegradability is that man-made material is less prone to biodegradation as compared to stuff made from plant or animal materials. 

The increased consumerism causes grave strain on the environment and it is becoming further difficult to manage landfills. In this context, the need for biodegradable material is now more than ever. 

Resulting from this increased need, it is seen that there is a significant shift toward biodegradable in various industries such as packaging or creating substances that are more prone to biodegradation. 

A good example can be the discontinuation of conventional plastic bags and their replacement with biodegradable bags in the market. This asserts the shift towards biodegradable material however, there is still a lot to be done.

What Materials are Diapers Made From? 

An average diaper is made from both natural and synthetic materials. The natural materials usually are cotton, cellulose, and wood products which may biodegrade easily within five to seven months. 

The synthetic materials used to make diapers include absorbent gels and plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene along with various adhesives and elastics. These materials may take up to more than 500 years to biodegrade and hence pose a threat to the environment. 

Perhaps the main part of any diaper is its absorbent pad which may be made of cotton along with synthetic polymers. This part of the diaper has two elements: a hydrophilic polymer and a fibrous material. It may absorb more than 10 times its weight. 

Another important part of any diaper is the body of the diaper that contains the absorbent pad. It is made of non-woven fabrics such as polyethylene, polypropylene et cetera. 

The nonwoven fabrics used in the body of the diapers are quite antagonistic to traditional woven fabrics such as silk and cotton because the latter can easily be degraded by the natural drivers including microbes and natural exposure. 

Other than the two main parts, the diapers usually contain other materials as well including adhesives or tapes involved in the process of closure. 

3 ways to manage disposed diapers

It is a matter of prime curiosity that what is the fate of diapers that end up in our trash cans. The answer to this may be subjective based on a number of factors, for instance, how good the waste disposal system is in the area. 

For developed countries, it can be learnt from national surveys and data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency that the diapers that end up in the trash cans may be subjected to landfills, composting, incineration, or recycling. 

A landfill is a garbage dump that is designed to contain waste and avoid contaminating nearby places. As per the data from authorities, it is estimated that since diapers are the third largest consumer product, they take up more than 3 to 40 percent of landfill space. 

Composting process depends on microbes to degrade the waste in a controlled setting. However, since it has been established that diapers may take up to 500 years to biodegrade therefore composting may not be the best disposal. 

However, research has shown that diapers are compatible with large-scale municipal composting. 

Incineration is the process of burning of solid waste in a controlled environment. Diapers can be subjected to the process of incineration. However, since incineration results in the production of harmful gasses, it may not be a good way (environmentally) to dispose of diapers. 

As per recycling, given the present context of scientific knowledge and practices, it is not possible to recycle diapers. However, research is underway and it may become possible to recycle diapers in near future. 

Can diapers be biodegradable in the Future?

It is a matter of piqued interest that what is the future of diapers? Is there any room for green diapers especially when there is a significant shift towards sustainability and environmental consideration. 

It must first be discussed how diapers can be green or biodegradable. For that, it must be made of those materials that are natural rather than synthetic so that they may be biodegraded in a short span of time rather than taking hundreds of years.

Traditional diapers are made of plastics and polymers like polyethylene which on one side augments the functioning capacity of diapers but on the other side, harm the environment. 

In comparison to traditional diapers, there are green diapers that are environmentally friendly. 

For diapers to be green, scientists must replace the synthetic materials used in diapers without compromising the functional capacity of diapers. 

Some of the major qualities of green diapers should be:

  • Chlorine-free
  • Perfume-free
  • Dye-free
  • Latex-free 
  • Must contain the least plastic 

Another approach in the context of the future of diapers is the concept of hybrid diapers. Hybrid diapers are a mixture of cloth and disposable diapers and the basic idea behind hybrid diapers is to lessen solid waste. 

Since the majority of diapers end up in landfills, hybrid diapers offer less strain on the landfills by reducing the overall volume that diapers take up in a landfill. In this way, there is room for other waste products to be processed. 

Conclusion 

The article explored various materials from which diapers are made which led to the final conclusion that disposable diapers are not biodegradable because they are made up of synthetic materials which take hundreds of years to biodegrade. The article also explained 3 ways to process disposed diapers, including landfills, incineration, and composting. The article also expanded on the concept of green diapers and hybrid diapers while also exploring if there is any room for biodegradability for diapers in the future. 

Why is the biodegradability of diapers important?

The stats linked to diaper usage are good enough to assert why it is important to have biodegradable diapers and if not, what can impacts be the environment. 

As per the figures for 2022, the diapers that are usually used in homes take up more than 3 to 40 percent of landfills’ space as diapers are the third largest consumer product on average. 

The majority of the diapers that are used by consumers end up in landfills where they take more than five hundred years to be properly decomposed. This is just the example in developed countries with good landfill systems. 

In developing countries, where either there is no landfill or poorly managed landfills, the situation gets worse. The methane and toxic gasses produced during the decomposition of diapers cause direct harm to the residents nearby and society at large.

It is estimated that an average child before he or she is potty trained, may use up to seven thousand diapers. However, this figure may vary on many factors.

Regardless, the impact that disposable diapers cause on the environment remains alarming and the need for green alternates become more important than ever, 

Frequently Asked Questions: Are Diapers Biodegradable?

Do Diapers Ever Decompose? 

Studies have revealed that diapers usually are made up of both natural and synthetic materials. The natural materials used to make diapers can be wood pulp or cellulose. Since these materials are natural, they can decompose easily in several months. 

However, diapers also contain synthetic materials such as plastics et cetera which may require more than 500 years to decompose. To conclude, yes, diapers can decompose but may require hundreds of years to decompose fully which may cause stress to the waste disposal management systems. Even after disposal, they may leave toxic wastes in the environment.

What is the difference between Composting & Biodegradation? 

Composting and biodegradation are essentially very similar processes because they both involve the use of natural drivers such as microbes to break down waste into simpler substances. 

However, the fundamental difference between biodegradation and composting is that composting is done under particular settings of pressure and temperature whereas no such specification is necessary for biodegradation. Biodegradation is a natural process and required no exploitation of any sort. 

Are Clothes Diapers more Eco-friendly as compared to Disposable Diapers? 

The general rule of thumb says that cloth diapers are more environmentally friendly as compared to disposable diapers. That is largely because of the reusability of cloth diapers. 

However, the conclusion is equivocal because the reusability of cloth diapers is linked to the consumption of water which is a precious environmental asset globally. 

References

Ajmeri, J. R., & Ajmeri, C. J. (2016). Developments in the use of nonwovens for disposable hygiene products. In Advances in Technical Nonwovens (pp. 473-496). Woodhead Publishing.

Chilton, K. (2019). Municipal Solid Waste Management and Myths. In Environmental Protection: Regulating for Results (pp. 3-27). Routledge.

Colón, J., Mestre-Montserrat, M., Puig-Ventosa, I., & Sánchez, A. (2013). Performance of compostable baby used diapers in the composting process with the organic fraction of municipal solid waste. Waste management, 33(5), 1097-1103.

Febo, P., & Gagliardini, A. (2018). Baby Diapers Past and Present: A Critical Review. Bionanotechnology to Save the Environment: Plant and Fishery’s Biomass as Alternative to Petrol, 227-238.

Khoo, S. C., Phang, X. Y., Ng, C. M., Lim, K. L., Lam, S. S., & Ma, N. L. (2019). Recent technologies for treatment and recycling of used disposable baby diapers. Process Safety and Environmental Protection, 123, 116-129.

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