Adult absorbent hygiene products a larger waste problem than nappies

New Australian research suggests absorbent hygiene products for adults -­ a medical necessity for many people -­ might be an even larger source of landfill waste than nappies.

Engineer, and lead author of a paper about waste management, Dr Emma Thompson Brewster from Southern Cross University told Cosmos these products are “essential health products relating to the quality of life for a lot of people in our community.”

She says, while disposable nappies have received considerable attention, the waste implications of adult products have been poorly understood.

In their paper published in Waste Management, Thompson-Brewster and co-authors modelled the quantities and environmental impacts of waste from both adult and infant absorbent hygiene products from 2020 to 2030. Their modelling took into account product mass and usage rates, as well as population size and demographics.

“We looked at the timeline from 2020 to 2030 … over that time, [the use of] infant nappies stay quite stable. But the adult hygiene product usage increases as our population ages.

“At the moment, it’s likely that adult products outweigh infants by two to three times. But by 2030, based on our scenarios, it’ll be between four and 10 times,” Thompson Brewster says.

All absorbent hygiene products – whether nappies for babies and or incontinence related products for adults – pose complex waste processing issues.

The products involve a mixture of biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials, which might not break down in landfills. In addition, when used, these products contain human waste (on average 60% urine and faeces by mass), leading to concerns about the risk of pathogens.

Currently most absorbent hygiene products end up in landfill, where methane gas and liquid waste (called leachate), are emitted as the waste breaks down.

Read more: Designer compost: repurposing food and organic waste to increase food production

Thompson Brewster says the focus of the research is to shed light on the issue and assist in the design of policy and waste management practices. For example, if local government waste programs are only targeting nappy waste, they will not be tackling the majority of the issue.

As governments and waste management authorities divert recyclable, organic and electronic waste from landfill, the focus will eventually shift to the remaining, tougher-to-recycle sources of landfill waste.

The paper notes that as Food Organics and Garden Organics (known as FOGO) collection increases across Australia, absorbent hygiene products will likely become one of the last biodegradable, or partially biodegradable waste streams going to landfill.

It is a sensitive issue to deal with.

The researchers say, the issue can be addressed through health care policies and waste management practices. Given the stigma associated with incontinence in adulthood, there is also a need for more inclusive terminology for waste reporting, instead of nappies.

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