Devon Authorities Waste Reduction and Recycling Committee

22 July 2009

Disposable Nappy Recycling in the UK

Report of the Officers Working Group

Please note that the following recommendation is subject to consideration and determination by the Committee before taking effect.

Recommendation: It is recommended that the Committee notes the content of this report.

1. Introduction

Up to now, nappies and other absorbent products have been one of the few remaining household items in the UK that go straight to landfill or incineration. Based on the fact that a child will use 6,000 nappies on average, combined with a UK population set to rise by seven million by 2031, there is a widening space in the market for a recycling solution.

Disposable nappy facts

The use of disposable nappies has increased over the past 20 years as a result of their convenience:

In February 2008, Birmingham City Council granted planning permission to build the UK's first nappy recycling plant in the city. Planners at Birmingham City Council welcomed the plant for the environmental benefits that it will bring and for creating 22 full-time jobs.

The 20 million facility will be built on an existing waste site not far from the city centre by recycling company Knowaste. It is anticipated that the plant will be operational by the end of 2009 or first quarter of 2010 at the latest, subject to Birmingham City Council securing funding.

The facility will be able to recycle 36,000 tonnes of the city's disposable nappies and absorbent hygiene products including bedliners and incontinence products.

Knowaste have had minimal interest from local authorities so far although their intent, at this moment, is not to set up a kerbside collection of nappies. They have contracts in place with daycares, hospitals and nursing homes in conjunction with a local waste haulier. These contracts should bring the plant up to capacity and also help the institutions to meet their sustainability goals.

The company hopes that containers would be installed at council recycling centres, recycling sites at supermarkets and other locations where parents could leave nappies. This set up has been carried out in several municipalities in Holland. The municipality provides a 40 cubic yard container (or any size that is suitable for the site) in an accessible location so that the residents of the municipality can dispose of their nappies at their convenience. A waste haulier collects the receptacle once a week. This is funded by the municipality.

Knowaste began research in this area in 1989 and has been commercially active for the past 10 years. Knowaste has processed and diverted over 200,000 tonnes of nappies in that time.

By setting up nappy recycling sites in several cities. Knowaste hopes to reduce the quantity of material being sent to landfill by 4%.

End uses

The modern disposable nappy consists of three components: mixed plastic, wood pulp and super absorbent gel polymers. Mixed plastic makes up the nappy's inner and outer layers. Wood pulp cushions and wicks moisture away from the skin and towards the nappies inner core. Super absorbent polymers (gel-like capsules) are located in the inner core and absorb moisture. All these individual components of a disposable nappy can be recycled using Knowaste technology.

The plastic recovered from the nappies and pads will initially be sent to partner company, Belgium based NRC, which produces plastic roof tiles. Other markets, such as the manufacturing of cycling helmets, shoe insoles and cladding provide other possibilities.

The longer cellulose fibres can be separated for making products such as biodegradable plant pots, certain paper grades, card, and filters.

The rest will be used to improve sewage processing though, at a later stage, Knowaste claim the superabsorbent polymers could be separated and re-used.

Anything else left over goes to an "energy island" within the plant. The energy island is a thermal transformation unit that will accept the cellulose fibre output and turn it into green energy.

In a second phase, methane will be extracted from the used nappies and sold to the national gas grid.

Water is internally treated and clarified and reused in the process.

The process

Knowaste claim their recycling process is the world's first, proven environmentally friendly, and cost effective solution to meeting the global challenge of nappy and/or adult incontinence waste.

A Canadian patented technology is used to deactivate the super-absorbent polymers in nappies, which releases the moisture. Salts like aluminium chloride deactivate the super-absorbent polymers, producing a kind of sand-like substance that can then be separated from plastic and pulp in a centrifugal separation system

The process involves three key stages:

At the completion of this washing process, the plastic materials are removed and sent to a separate device for processing. Plastic components are again filtered and cleaned in a final washing cycle. After the remaining nappy parts are screened for any remaining traces of plastic and other organic material, the deactivated super absorbent polymers are separated from the fibre stream through another cleaning process. Finally, the fibres continue through yet another fine mechanical washing, cleaning and screening process, producing a clean, long-length fibre that can be used in a myriad of product

The reclaimed components - pulp fibres, super absorbent polymers, and plastic components can be made into recycled products

Plastic components

Pulp fibres

Findings from research

Knowaste commissioned a survey carried out by askamum.co.uk, the website of Mother & Baby magazine. Findings showed that parents in the UK are keen to see disposable nappy recycling become reality. The study amongst 1,600 plus parents revealed that the vast majority (95%) want disposable nappy recycling as part of their standard household waste collection to avoid them being landfilled. Moreover, 84% would prefer to dispose of nappy waste by recycling as against incineration (8.6%).

Furthermore, 93% of mums and dads felt a degree of uneasiness when throwing nappies out with the rest of their waste. More than nine in ten would segregate nappies for collection and recycling in a similar way to other items, such as glass and tins, and 83% would support a fortnightly collection if they knew nappies would be recycled rather than taken to landfill.

The survey also shows the average family is willing to pay an extra 2.15 a month to have nappies collected for recycling with 8% willing to pay up to 10. One third said they would not be willing to pay anything

12% of the total number of respondents consistently use or used washable cloth nappies despite 43% of families having planned on using them prior to their baby being born. Over half of respondents said they had no plans to use washable nappies from the start

The majority of respondents felt that a combination of the individual, nappy manufacturers, local authorities, and the waste industry should be responsible for the costs of nappy recycling


Knowaste is confident about markets for outputs from its reprocessing process, which is currently designed to produce plastic roof tiles. Knowaste Executives admit the market for roof tiles had reduced because of the financial difficulties in the construction sector. However, the reprocessing process can be altered to produce other more marketable products.

The Birmingham facility will also produce 3MW which can be sold to the National Grid.


There is a collection cost, which will be charged by the waste collection company. In addition, Knowaste will charge a gate fee to use its recycling facility. The gate fee has not yet been set.

Future plans

The company also wants to build larger plants capable of processing 50,000 tonnes of waste per year and Knowaste believes there is room for three facilities in the London area alone.

Knowaste is currently in discussion with the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to build a facility in the London area. Knowaste originally began talks with former mayor Ken Livingstone in 2005. Knowaste hopes London will have four facilities in total with the first one becoming operational in 2010. The company is also scouting areas in the north east - between Sheffield and Newcastle - to find a suitable location for another new facility.

The company is also planning processing facilities in Portugal and Slovenia by 2009.

Issues to consider

An independent consultant talking at the Resource Recovery Forum conference (July 2005) on the Environment Agency's initial research into disposables versus real nappies, said his findings showed that recycling disposable nappies was actually worse than incineration in terms of energy use. Recycling consumes a lot of water and the plastics and paper retrieved from the process had no or little value on the market as they had very restricted potential for remanufacturing.

Disposable nappies contain oil derived plastics and so have a carbon footprint associated with crude oil extraction. Their pulp requires the clearing of land for plantation timber (about 1.8million trees annually) and water for irrigation.

In the Environment Agency's LCA report on disposable nappies vs real nappies, it was found that the main sources of environmental impact for disposable nappies were raw material production and the conversion of these materials into disposable nappy components, for example, fluff pulp and super absorbent polymer. Therefore, producing a single life product would still generate environmental impacts even if it was recycled after use.

2. Sustainability Considerations

The carbon footprint of recycling disposable nappies is as yet unknown. While diverting nappies from landfill, there are still issues surrounding the energy intensive manufacturing process and the energy used to recycle them.

3. Options/alternatives

The committee already supports The Devon Real Nappy Project which promotes the use of real nappies as an alternative to disposables. The committee may decide to consider the recycling of disposable nappies in addition to or instead of this scheme.

4. Legal Considerations

The implications/consequences of the recommendation have been taken into account in preparing the report.

Officer Working Group

Electoral Divisions: All

Local Government Act 1972

List of Background Papers

Contact for enquiries: Nicky McInnes

Tel No: (01392) 383541

Background Papers Date File Ref.



sc/disposable nappy recycling

2 hq 070709

Date Published: Tue Jul 14 2009