Are Diapers Recyclable? The Dirty Details On Diaper Recycling & Disposal
Are you tired of getting stuck in a disposable diaper dilemma?
You’re not alone. Disposable diapers may be convenient, but they’re pretty nasty—and we’re not talking about the contents.
Considering the average baby will go through 5000–5700 diapers by the time they’re potty-trained, they can also leave a nasty environmental footprint, leaving my planet-minded parents to wonder: are diapers recyclable?
It’s a valid question because those 5000+ diapers contribute to 7.6 billion pounds of diaper waste in US landfills USA annually, making diapers the third most prevalent consumer item in landfills.
Unfortunately, the poop scoop on diaper recycling is that it’s not widely possible, at least not through the most accessible venues and curbside programs.
But don’t throw in the eco-friendly baby wipe just yet!
There’s no getting around it: diapers are a necessary evil. However, there are ways to get around the grim fate of dirty diapers.
We’ve got the lowdown on how to dispose of diapers, as well as a list of eco-friendly alternatives that won’t leave you feeling pooped.
1. What Is A Diaper?
The question may sound obvious—diapers are something babies poo in to keep the mess contained, duh—but what is a diaper, really? What are diapers made of?
It depends on what types of baby diapers we’re talking about. There are reusable diapers (often made of natural fabrics like cotton, bamboo, or hemp combined with a PUL waterproof lining barrier) and there are disposable diapers.
Disposable are the most commonly used diapers due to their convenience and ease of use and cleanup. They are made of several layers of different materials, which can vary depending on whether we’re talking about conventional diapers or more eco-friendly diapers.
Most diapers are conventionally made of synthetic fabrics like polyethylene, including a plastic waterproof outer layer and a superabsorbent polymer (SAP) core, combined with elastic, adhesives, and chemicals for odor control and absorbency.
Eco-friendlier versions replace as many of these components with plant-based or recycled alternatives, like SAPs made of bamboo, wood pulp, and corn starch, and waterproof barriers made of recycled plastic or PLA and sugar cane polyethylene.
No matter how the cookies crumbles, disposable diapers always involve plastic, just in varying degrees.
2. Are Disposable Diapers Recyclable?
Many types of plastic are recyclable, but baby diapers are soft plastic, which drastically reduces recycling prospects. The fact that they contain so many components reduces them further.
To zero, in fact.
Unfortunately, the answer to the bum burning question, “Can diapers be recycled?” is no, at least not in any curbside of municipal recycling programs. There are a limited number of specialty diaper recycling companies we’ll touch on later.
Why Diapers Cannot Be Recycled
Disposable baby diapers are not recyclable for several reasons.
First, disposable diapers are also considered a biohazard due to their human waste contents. The feces and urine contained in used diapers can spread diseases, and recycling them may pose health risks and even contaminate otherwise perfectly recyclable materials—so no “wishcycling” please!
So used diapers aren’t recyclable, but are unused diapers recyclable?
Untouched, clean diapers are also not recyclable because of the second major barrier diaper disposal recycling: complexity and mixed materials.
Disposable diapers are made of several materials that cannot be easily separated. The layers of plastic, absorbent material, and chemicals are all tightly integrated, making it difficult to recycle them, even by the most high-tech of diaper recycling equipment.
Even alone, polyethylene, the most common plastic used in diapers, is accepted by few recycling facilities.
Moreover, the absorbent hygiene products and materials used are often treated with chemicals, also making them unsuitable for recycling.
However, recycling diaper boxes and bags is possible, so be sure to at least minimize your landfill waste by doing that.
3. Are Diapers Biodegradable?
If the answer to, “How recyclable are disposable diapers” is “not very”, then you might ask the next logical question: are disposable diapers biodegradable?
Unfortunately, conventional single-use diapers are not fully biodegradable at this point in time, either.
When something is biodegradable, that means it is made from nature, and is able to break down naturally and turn back into soil. Single-use diapers are typically made from a variety of plastic-based ingredients, and plastic is not biodegradable.
Even supposedly biodegradable nappies—or those that replace bleached layers of polypropylene and polyethylene with mostly plant-based and sustainably-harvested plant pulps processed without excessive chemicals—still utilize some synthetics to create a leak-proof, waterproof barrier.
The best brands use either PUL or recycled plastic bottles. Recycled diapers are better than virgin plastic, but doesn’t solve our dirty little disposal problem. As it stands, the most plant-based diaper brand currently available, Ecorginals, has still only achieved 90% biobased composition.
Naturally, this means you can’t compost diapers, either.
That means they still have to go to landfills, where they are quoted to have about a 50-year diaper decomposition time.
While shorter than the answer to, “How long does it take a diaper to decompose if made of traditional plastic?” in some respects, this makes them worse than conventional disposable diapers. When plant-based materials biodegrade in landfills anaerobically, they produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas 25 times as powerful as CO2.
On the other hand, not utilizing virgin plastic means less petroleum demand—of which diapers consume 248.5 million barrels of crude oil annually—and usually fewer chemicals like chlorine bleach and fragrances to pollute the land as it biodegrades.
And if they end up in waterways, as the 21% of diaper waste making up Indonesian waterways shows they do, they won’t release nearly as many microplastics or leach as many chemicals as fully plastic diapers.
4. How To Dispose of Diapers
If diapers are neither recyclable nor biodegradable, what’s the best way to responsibly handle them? Can you recycle diapers ever?
The brand DYPER offers a REDYPER™ disposable diaper recycling program through a partnership with Terracycle. Their pickup service is only available in 21 cities so far, but if you’re not fortunate enough to live in one, you can mail your (properly sealed!) used diaper cache to the brand for disposable in their diaper recycling facility.
In terms of what the diapers are recycled into, their diaper recycling process is actually am industrial composting process.
First, it filters out what can’t get composted (though it’s unclear what happens to these components) then uses a high-heat optimal composting environment to break down the remaining materials into BYOCHAR™, a biomass that can be used as fossil fuel-free heating fuel.
Though run by Terracycle, the Terracycle diaper recycling box on their website is currently reserved only for wipe and diaper packaging, though we hope to see this program expand to Terracycle’s website to further improve access to it.
If, for whatever reason, you can’t take advantage of this diaper recycling program, the most responsible way to dispose of them is through proper waste management. Used diapers should be wrapped in plastic bags and placed in the garbage bin. It’s important to note that diapers should never be flushed down the toilet, as this can lead to clogging of the sewage system and environmental pollution.
However, one way to reduce the environmental impact of disposable diapers is by using biodegradable diaper liners, which help to contain feces and urine and can be flushed down the toilet.
5. The Future Of Recyclable Disposable Diapers
There are other exciting diaper recycling technology developments in the works, too.
Researchers at Taiwan’s Chung Hua University recently developed a “groundbreaking” baby diaper recycling machine that can recycle 10 tons of used diaper mass in just one day. What’s more, the built-in cleaning and disinfecting process uses less water than the average toilet and emits only 35.1 kg of CO2 per 10 tons of diapers.
Similarly, the Japanese company Super Faiths has developed a system that turns dirty diapers into ironically clean electricity in about 24 hours. The SFD-2000 can handle 600 kilograms of diapers daily.
The key now is to get such technology into more diaper recycling centers around the world. It may take time, but it’s a start. We hope to see more diaper recycling companies in the near future.
6. Alternatives To Disposable Baby Diapers
Since there’s no easy way to recycle diapers, the most sustainable choice is to opt for diapers that don’t require recycling to behind with.
Cloth diapers are reusable, making them an eco-friendly and cost-effective alternative to disposable diapers,
They require a little washing nappy know-how, but if washing them is a no-go for you, some communities offer diaper services that provide cloth diaper delivery and pick-up services. This can be a convenient option for parents who want to use cloth diapers but don’t have the time or resources to wash and maintain them.
What about when cloth diapers wear out? Are reusable diapers recyclable?
In general, cloth diapers can be recycled as long as they are clean and free of any waste or other contaminants. However, not all textile recycling programs accept cloth diapers, so it’s important to check with your local recycling center or waste management authority to see if they have a specific policy on cloth diaper recycling.
If your local recycling program does accept cloth diapers, they may have specific instructions for how to prepare them for recycling. For example, they may require that you separate the diaper covers from the inserts or liners, or that you remove any snaps, buttons, or other hardware before recycling.
Better yet, opt for 100% natural fabrics, so they’re compostable at end-of-life.
Here are some cloth diapers from eco-friendly brands we love and recommend:
- Momgaroo: Made of either 100% hemp fabric or hemp with a bamboo or microfiber insert and reusable PUL outer layer, Momgaroo’s diapers are both waterproof and washable.
- Ecoriginals: In addition to 90% biobased disposable diapers, Ecoriginals offers reusables made of rPET and bamboo.
- Esembly: Assembly’s cloth diapers combine an organic cotton core with a recycled plastic bottle and TPU laminate waterproof outer.
- Essentially Eco UK: Triple-layer microfiber cloth keeps your baby’s butt dry and chafe-free, while a PUL outer layer keeps everything outside the diaper dry, too.
Hybrid diapers are a combination of cloth and disposable diapers. They have a reusable outer shell and a disposable insert, making them a more eco-friendly option than regular disposable diapers.
Sustainably speaking, there’s no contest between cloth and reusable diapers. However, we know not everyone can use reusable ones 100% of the time. Life just isn’t that forgiving!
You can also combine several different diapering methods based on what works for you and your lifestyle. For instance, at home, try to use cloth diapers as much as possible, saving disposables for travel, daycare, and on-the-go use.
Even using cloth diapers some of the time means fewer diapers becoming part of your household waste. As with all things parenting (and sustainable living in general, for that matter), you don’t need to be perfect to be a little kinder on your fellow mama (Earth).
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Final Thoughts On Are Diapers Recyclable?
Diapers are an admittedly sh*tty part of parenting—equally so for the environment.
But they are somewhat of a necessity and whether you’re a cloth-diapering champ, a die-hard disposable diaperer, or a hybrid hero, there’s always going to be some impact involved with how you choose to cover your baby’s bottom.
Recyclable diapers are not out of the realm of possibility, but as it currently stands, it’s difficult to recycle diapers and access is highly limited.
However, innovations in diaper recycling technology seek to change this, hopefully before your kiddo is potty trained!
Until we can answer the question, “Are baby diapers recyclable?” with a confident and resounding YES, we’ll be going the cloth-clad route to reduce disposable diaper waste and watching this space closely.
Until then, pees (we mean, please) pass this article along to fellow parents and childcare givers so that we can all be more educated on more eco-friendly diaper disposal—and get a healthy dose of hope for the future of it.