“We are exploring every market that we are in and we are absolutely open to any type of partnership,” says Ioannis Hatzopoulos, global baby care sustainability communication, P&G.
P&G began its diaper recycling efforts through its joint venture company, Fater SpA, in Italy in 2015. In August 2017, this program exited the pilot stage with the startup of an industrial scale operation capable of repurposing 10,000 tons of absorbent hygiene products per year, affecting roughly one million people.
In June 2018, the company announced it was establishing its second recycling operation, a facility outside of Amsterdam, also capable of recycling 10,000 tons of absorbent hygiene waste. For this effort, P&G is partnering with AEB Amsterdam, a waste management service. P&G reportedly chose Amsterdam for this operation because interest in recyclability is high, landfill space is low and a high level of ground water makes contamination a risk. The goal of this project is to find new life for the materials sourced from recycled diapers while limiting its toll on landfill space and the environment as a whole.
While P&G has made no firm announcement for its next recycling outpost, executives have hinted that India is a strong contender because of its huge waste problem and the strong growth potential for the disposable diaper market. Earlier this year, CEO David Taylor met with government officials to discuss the company’s manufacturing initiatives and offered to assist in the Clean India Initiative (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) by using technology to reduce waste to landfill that will up-cycle sanitary waste.
Unicharm Expands Diaper Recycling Efforts
Meanwhile, Japan’s largest hygiene producer Unicharm is partnering with Shibushi City to develop a pilot diaper recycling operation that could ultimately form the base of a Japan-wide program to reduce the impact of disposable diapers on the environment.
Unicharm first began a disposable diaper recycling program in 2015. Before that the company had been extracting plastic pulp and low-grade pulp from some used disposable diapers and the pulp was repurposed Refuse Paper and Plastic Fuel (RPF). In creating a recycling process, Unicharm faced the challenge of developing a process that is cheaper than incineration and creates a recycled pulp material that is as high quality as virgin pulp.
Some of the key features of Unicharm’s recycling process is the reusability of water, which makes process more efficient, and the development of a process, along with a research partner, to repurpose superabsorbent polymers.
Unicharm formed its partnership with Shibushi City in Kagoshima Prefecture in May 2016. The goal of this program is to establish a system that can be widely adopted in Japan and in other countries.
“One of our goals for the future is to start working with a larger number of local authorities that share Shibushi City’s vision of valuing materials resources and valuing people,” says Junichi Nishikawa, director, department of environment Shibushi City Government. “In order to further expand the impact of Unicharm’s environmentally-friendly business activities, we hope Unicharm to function as a pathfinder that can act as a model for other business enterprises to emulate.”
For its part, Unicharm is continuing to undertake development work aimed at returning materials to their original constituent elements as far as possible.
“In our verification testing in Shibushi City, we have been working together with the officials of the local government authority to take on the challenge of getting this technology established as rapidly as possible, with the aim of developing a cyclical resource use model that supports the utilization of recycled products,” says Noritoma Kameda, director, new platform center, global research and development division at Unicharm. “As part of our goal to be a sustainable business, it is important that we switch over to an emphasis on recycling and resource recovery. Through resource recovery, the mountains of waste that would otherwise be disposed of by incineration can be transformed into mountains of treasure.”
Elsewhere, Unicharm has been working with Diaper Recycling Technology to establish a recycling system at its Diana subsidiary in Vietnam. The system uses low levels of energy to recycle factory diaper waste, converting the waste back into its original raw material formats in a cost effective way using minimal energy.
According to Martin Scaife, CTO of Diaper Recycling Technology, his company offers multiple size machines to handle post industrial diaper waste, allowing people with smaller factories to launch recycling operations. This flexibility, combined with its significantly lower energy costs, helps remove cost constraints for smaller hygiene manufacturers looking to recycle their factory waste.
“We can provide cost efficient machinery for small family businesses with just one or two production lines,” Scaife says. “We see this as a huge opportunity to offer recycling options to smaller companies.”
Low energy costs are not the only advantage of the Diaper Recycling Technology machine, he added. The superabsorbent polymer and the plastic materials exuded from the process are both 100% clean, allowing manufacturers to repurpose it into its production line. The pulp purity is not quite 100% pure, for now, but Scaife hopes to bring the level from more than 99% to 100% in the eighth generation machine lines, which are currently being developed.
The focus on developing a pure process on the industrial side has dominated Diaper Recycling Technology’s efforts in recent years, but soon the company plans to start targeting post consumer recycling operations.
“We will still need the same best-in-class process as post industrial and we want to keep energy costs down and purity levels high,” Scaife says. “The same concepts apply in both markets—keep energy costs down and purity levels high.”
Knowaste to Team Up
U.K.-based Knowaste has been in the diaper recycling game since the mid 1990s, becoming the first in the U.K. to recycle absorbent hygiene products in 2011. When its original plant was closed in 2014 because it was not large enough to become commercially viable, the company decided to reexamine its business plan to decide how it would proceed—as a licensor, owner, operator, etc. The consensus was that operating alone presented challenges so its original plan of setting up recycling centers initially throughout London was scrapped.
“We have decided that we are looking at partners,” says CEO Roy Brown. “Originally we tried to do it alone but now we are looking for strategic partners and we are close to teaming up with a global manufacturer of absorbent products.”
The Knowaste process reverts the diapers back to fiber and then plastic materials following a sterilization process. The result is a product that could be ideal for a number of areas.
“Making a specific product really limits us and we want to get as much value as possible,” Brown says. “We want to make sure that every last granule gets out there into the market. We’ve done a lot of testing and we can replace just about anything that uses a plastic pellet.”