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Disposable Nappies take centuries to disintegrate – A Call for Action to Manufacturers and Consumers

In a landfill, a single disposable diaper can take 200 to 500 years to disintegrate.

“With South Africa already facing a challenge of running out of landfill site airspace, the local production and sale of about 1.4 billion diapers per year should be of huge concern,” warns Mpendulo Ginindza, President of the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA).

“A child using disposable diapers is believed to produce up to 900 kg of nappy waste in the first two years of life.” Ginindza contends that consumers, who are increasingly moving away from single-use plastic items like straws and bags, should also acknowledge that nappies are made of single-use plastic. “These disposable diapers’ production and disposal leave a large carbon footprint. Their manufacturing involves crude oil, water, and wood pulp.”

She adds that when they are disposed of improperly, diapers that are left lying around expose children, waste collectors, and animals to them. “It is often misleading to claim on the label that disposable diapers are “biodegradable” or “eco-disposable ”. These nappies typically include mixed materials which require different environments in order to degrade; they cannot do so in a landfill. They cannot be thrown away in a standard compost bin either. ” The resulting impact on health and the environment, Ginindza cautions, is huge.

The Role of Diaper Manufacturers in EPRThe legal criteria for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) came into effect in May 2021.

“These requirements put back the responsibility on paper, packaging and single use product manufacturers and importers to assume responsibility for the complete life of the products they generate,” Ginindza explains. “Yet it is tricky to say where nappy manufactures fall within these categories. Most often, they are considered as producers of hygiene products.”

 However, diapers are made, confined, and wrapped in plastic in bulk packaging. As a result, their contributions will be needed if EPR is to succeed. “We are still in the early days of implementation of these requirements. All stakeholders are working hard to understand and implement these requirements,” Ginindza says.

Small consumer actions can make a world of differenceBy making conscious decisions regarding disposal, consumers can make a difference. Ginindza says she has two suggestions for those who don’t know where to start.

“Consumers could perhaps consider adopting reusable nappies part-time,” she suggests. “We can not deny that there is a valid or reasonable need for disposable nappies. They are sometimes used for sick or elderly people to help keep them clean. However, we can normalise modern cloth diapers and promote reusable diapers in a positive way.”

She continues by saying that there is a lot of assistance available from senior family members and online tutorial videos to help families get to grips with reusable nappies.

“Secondly, we have to work towards separation at source to help control odours and downstream safety, health and environmental risks.”

In conclusion, Ginindza notes that consumers do not need to aim to be perfect at doing all of this. “Millions of people making imperfect changes can and will make a difference.”

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