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Can Terracycle Convince American Parents to Recycle Dirty Diapers?

Raz Godelnik
| Wednesday April 11th, 2012 | 3 Comments

Terracycle is no stranger to challenges. The company actually seems to thrive on exploring new ways to upcycle and recycle traditionally non-recyclable waste into new products. Still, none of the items the company has saved from landfills thus far, including drink pouches and chip bags, has been as challenging as their recent conquest. It’s dirty, stinky and not so easy to recycle and usually no one really wants to mess with it. Yes, we’re talking about disposable diapers.

One of the important components of Terracycle’s supply chain is its waste collectors. The company has more than 20 million people (aka brigades) in over 20 countries participating in its programs, collecting waste in their workplaces, schools, and churches, and sending it to Terracycle. There is no personal benefit for the brigade members besides the option to choose which charity receives 2 cents per item. In some cases even this option is not available and then as Tom Szaky, the co-founder and CEO of Terracycle explained to BBMG’s Mitch Baranowski, it’s all about the environmental benefit of keeping waste out of landfills. Is the feel-good factor going to be good enough when it comes to dirty diapers?

Terracycle’s successful cash-from-trash business is based on five ingredients: free raw material that is available in large quantities, the collectors, a sponsor, processing technology and new products. All five are about to or already in place in the case of used diapers. In 2010, Americans threw away more than 3.7 million tons of them into municipal waste streams, so there is no shortage of raw material. The collectors, which will probably be parents, will bring the dirty diapers to collection points in places like daycare centers.

Last but not least, Terracycle´s R&D team developed a recycling process for the diapers that will transform them into a material suitable for everything from shipping pallets to park benches.

All Terracycle needs is a sponsor to pay for the shipping costs and the donations given on the behalf of the brigades. There is a good chance will be Huggies will step up to the plate since they already partner with Terracycle to collect diaper packaging.

Terracycle has put a lot of effort into the technological challenges of the process – from collecting and handling dirty diapers without exposing handlers to germs to separating the several layers of the diaper to isolate the component parts. The company’s team of scientists, led by Ernie Simpson, global vice president of research and development, worked for almost a year to develop the right solution for the diapers. “[Recycling] used diapers was a pretty tall order. It´s solving the most complex waste stream known right now in the U.S. There is no more complicated waste stream than that,” Simpson said in an interview to Waste & Recycling.

Yet, even Simpson himself knows that in this case, the technological challenge is second to the human challenge. In other words: how do you create a critical mass of parents that will bring their babies’ disposable diapers to collection points outside the home? The history of such efforts in shows it ain’t easy at all. According to Carolyn Beeler’s report on NewsWorks,  Proctor & Gamble abandoned a pilot program in Seattle In the early 1990s because it wasn’t worth the money and effort, and another small program in California backed by the recycling company Knowaste didn’t get past the pilot stage. The bottom line is that no one has succeeded in getting people to recycle disposable diapers in the U.S.

Outside the U.S. there are few examples of such recycling programs, and those that exist were set up under different circumstances. In Toronto, Canada, for example the city collects diapers and other organic items from households, as part of its Green Bin program and sends them to a processing facility. In the UK, Knowaste (the company with the failed CA pilot) recently opened a diaper recycling plant, the first of five planned over next four years. The key to success for Knowaste this time around is working closely with local municipalities which have an incentive to help the recycling effort due to landfill constraints.

In addition to the supportive regulatory environment, Knowaste claims that British parents are willing to do their part, reporting that in a recent survey of parents across the UK, “nine out of ten parents stated that they would segregate nappies for collection. And, 83% said that they would support a fortnightly collection if they knew the nappies would not be taken to landfill.”

We’ll have to wait and see how these attitudes translate into action, but I have a feeling it is going to be more difficult to get parents on board in the U.S. The problem is that unlike Recyclebank for example, Terracycle does not provide a substantial monetary reward that will incentivize parents to collect dirty diapers and bring them to the nearest daycare. They are basically counting on either the environmental benefit of the activity or the power of a group effort to drive enough parents to become part of the diapers recycling system.

Will it work? It’s a good question. This is going to be an interesting behavior change experiment, one that asks parents not to go all the way and move from disposable to reusable diapers, but take a smaller step and help recycle disposable diapers. It’s still a big step for many parents, but Terracycle hopes to prove it’s not out of reach. Let’s hope they are right.

[Image credit: locket479, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.


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  • Janet Boys

    Wow!  Great idea and great challenge! I would participate, but I’m not having any children.

  • Ashley

    Let the diaper manufacturing coompanies give discount coupons to the parents who support this recycling drive. Great savings also to parents.

  • Cathy

    If we could get the municipal waste management programs involved, it would solve the problem of having to take diapers to another place. Special containers like those for recycle items could be provided. Of course, this would take money. Wonder if federal money is available?