Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Tuesday, 22 April 2008 00:03 UK

Recycling firm dreams of nappy days

By Simon Atkinson
Business Reporter, BBC News

A baby wears a nappy
The average child gets through about 6,000 nappies.

We do it with bottles and paper, cardboards and cans.

But when it comes to recycling disposable nappies - and used ones at that - there is undoubtedly a whiff of suspicion.

Nevertheless, a Canadian firm has unveiled plans for a UK first - a processing plant to do just that.

Knowaste - which already recycles hundreds of thousands of nappies in the US - is to open a site in Birmingham later this year.

Initially the company will process waste from nursing homes, nurseries and hospitals.

But it has its sights firmly set on UK nappies - making money by charging local authorities to get rid of the waste.

Landfill costs

Separating the different components of the nappy - super absorbent polymers, wood pulp and plastic - the technology allows each material to be recycled.

These can then be sold on for use in goods from plastic cladding to roof tiles.

Some of the by-products can even be used to fuel the processing plant.

The average child will get through 6,000 nappies by the time they are two-and-a-half years old
About 3 billion disposable nappies are used in the UK each year
That works out at more than 8 million each day

Knowaste has already made a foray into the Netherlands - albeit one which has now collapsed because, it says, of the country's preference for incineration which meant it was unable to compete on price.

But the company's chief executive, Roy Brown, says the time is now right - economically and politically - to move into the UK.

A European Union directive has set targets to slash the amount of waste sent to landfill by 2010 and the amount of space available for such dumping is limited.

Meanwhile, the cost of sending rubbish to landfill is on the up - this month rising by 8 a tonne to 32, with more price hikes already planned over the next two years

And with oil prices currently well above $100 a barrel, the plastics which can be salvaged "have real value", Mr Brown adds.

Kerbside collection

Industry figures suggest that each year about 800,000 tonnes of waste such as nappies, bedliners and incontinence products are sent to landfill.

More than two-thirds of this is made up by nappies - with the average child using 6,000 by the time they are aged two-and-half.

"To be a success, we have to crack the domestic market," Mr Brown says.

But just how is that nappy going to get from baby's bottom to the recycling site in Birmingham?

A kerbside collection of the nappies - put in separate bag or container from other rubbish and recyclables - seems the most likely solution.

Other councils may insist on parents taking the nappies to a central disposal point.

Nicola Ainsworth and her daughter, Matilda
Nappies really stink. They're disgusting
New mum, Nicola Ainsworth (pictured with seven-week-old daughter, Matilda)

"It's unlikely that there will be one solution," Mr Brown says.

"But there's no reason why they can't be collected in the same way as other recycling, like glass bottles or aluminium cans.

"And despite what some parents may think, dirty nappies aren't classed as hazardous waste."

The scheme is "extremely appealing" to local authorities which need to cut their landfill levels, argues Paul Richardson, the managing director of Alpha Wastecare, which will deliver waste to the Birmingham plant.

"We're offering them a one product solution that will help them do that - and I think they'll bite our hand off."

As yet though, no local authorities or councils have committed to the scheme.

First, councils want to see it in action in the commercial sector, says Mr Richardson.

They want, he adds, in a slightly unfortunate turn of phrase, "to touch and feel it".

Knowaste expects to have at least five sites open by 2013 based around major cities.

This, it claims, would divert 13% of nappy waste from landfill.

"Local authorities and the NHS are very happy to work with us," says Mr Brown. "They are not necessarily the quickest to act, but they're enthusiastic.

"However they will not pay a premium to do it so we have to be competitive."

'Change culture'

Critics say that this is not the solution to the landfill problem - and that instead the only solution is a change in behaviour.

Groups such as the Women's Environment Network (WEN) and the Real Nappy Campaign have pushed for parents to use cloth nappies that they can wash and re-use.

Such nappies are a natural, easy to use and cost effective alternative to disposable nappies, they say.

Nappy Projects Officer at Women's Environmental Network, Kay Wagland says that the recycling plant is a terrible idea.

"It is a bit mad to set up such an elaborate energy consuming system with products of dubious value to solve a waste problem that needn't exist," Ms Wagland says.

A landfill site
Landfill waste rots and creates methane gas

Meanwhile Jon Rolls of the Real Nappy Campaign said that the Knowaste proposal would only tackle a small part of the problem.

"We need to change our culture of using disposable products and shift to a more resource efficient society, that places greater emphasis on the waste hierarchy," he adds.

Environment worry

However new mum Nicola Ainsworth says she likes Knowaste's concept, believing it would help take away some of the "eco-guilt" attached to using disposable nappies.

Her seven-week old daughter Matilda is currently getting though about eight nappies a day

And while she and husband Brian have contemplated re-usable cotton nappies for Matilda, so far they have decided against it.

"It would probably work out cheaper, but having to do all the washing would be a real hassle, especially when we are so busy and new to it all," Nicola, 30, adds.

"But you do worry about the environment and it's a lot of waste to send to landfill, so if they can recycle them, then that'd be brilliant."

However there is one proviso.

"They would have to be collected pretty regularly. Nappies really stink. They're disgusting."

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