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Recycling diapers is possible! Baby's disposable diapers are one of the biggest pollutants on our planet.

 In Italy, a unique plant has developed a system to recycle them into raw materials ready for use again. How does it work? Once upon a time ...

 In Italy, a unique plant has developed a system to recycle them into raw materials ready for use again. How does it work?


Once upon a time there was recycling

A first in Treviso, Italy, one of the leading countries in recycling. Fater, born from the association of Pampers (a Procter&Gamble diaper brand) and Angelini, will open in 2017 a plant capable of 100% recycling all the components of used baby diapers, as well as all feminine hygiene absorbents of all brands, i.e. plastic, cellulose and super-absorbent polymers (SAP). 

Thanks to a unique technology with 140 registered patents, developed by Marcello Somma, R&D Director, the plant is sized to transform 10,000 tons of diapers per year into recycled raw materials.

Well-organized diaper collection 

Collection is carried out three times a week from private homes and in collective garbage cans thanks to the intervention of Contarina, the municipal collection system. "In 50 municipalities in Veneto (a region in northern Italy), 14 million people have access to the diaper sorting system," informs Marcello Somma.

Recycling of diapers step by step

In this large shed open to the outside, the smell is hard to stand! A mixture of urine and ammonia? Difficult to say precisely but one is mechanically pushed to cover his nose with his scarf. Here, the giant machines reign supreme, we can only see a silhouette in the distance. "The chain is fully automated for health reasons. Only three people work here. Not once does the human hand intervene even once in the entire process," informs one of the site managers. 

On a giant conveyor belt, a collection truck unloads used diapers and other feminine absorbents, packed in plastic bags. They are transported and stored in a large closed chamber designed to limit and disperse the effluent, and then transported to an autoclave, a kind of "sterilizer".

Through the action of rotation and the steam generated, the plastic bags open, releasing the diapers which are then cleaned and disinfected. How many liters of water are used during this step? Is this cycle eco-responsible? For reasons of confidentiality, Fatter could not answer us precisely about its water consumption. However, the company confirmed that 80% of the various water vapors are reused or sent to a nearby treatment center. 

The diapers are cleaned a second time, bleached and cleaned of any bacteria using an "oxidizer" and then sent to a shredder. The exact name of the chemical used was not disclosed, but Fater has indicated that it is "non-chlorinated" and that this step is formally required in order to comply with Italy's "End of Waste" decree, issued in May 2019. The diapers are then dried and the raw materials, cellulose, plastic and super absorbent polymer (SAP), are recovered and separated from each other using an infrared detector capable of identifying them all. "A complete treatment cycle lasts 5 hours for 1,500 kg of diapers," explains Marcello Somma.

Recycled materials, ready for production!

In one ton of diapers, Fater recovers 150 kg of cellulose, 75 kg of plastic and even super absorbent polymer. The organic matter (pee, poop, the rest) is eliminated, like other waste. "Between diaper incineration and recycling, the latter remains the most environmentally friendly solution for our planet," says Ricardo Calvi, communications manager for Fater/P&G Italy. 

Recycled raw materials are sold and used in the manufacture of several products: cellulose will be used in the manufacture of cardboard and furniture, plastic will be transformed into clothes pegs, playground solutions and bottle caps, while the superabsorbent polymer will be used in coatings designed to retain water in gardens and agriculture. We understand why when we learn that 1 gram of this polymer is capable of retaining 0.5 liters of water.

Tomorrow, plants to be recycled throughout Europe 

By 2021, Fater plans to deploy its plants in three European cities, including one in France (where 11 million diapers are used daily), and in 10 cities around the world by 2030. Currently, 600 pilot families in Amsterdam and Verona are testing a new collection method: the Fater Smart garbage can. Installed in supermarkets, nurseries and pharmacies, this garbage can identifies the user by means of his or her smartphone, and opens and closes automatically after diapers are dropped off. It is practical and guaranteed odorless! With this system, a financial reward in the form of purchase coupons could even be considered by communities to encourage users. 

Composting: another way to depollute?

If the recycling of layers is one of the possibilities today, would composting be an alternative? The association Les Alchimistes, which specializes in composting waste, has launched an experimental project in partnership with 10 Île-de-France daycare centers called "les couches fertiles" (the fertile layers), which aims to transform poop into compost! More concretely, the association is recovering and transporting the layers to its Ile Saint-Denis site. 

Biodegradable organic materials (saddle, urine, cellulose) are separated from non-natural materials, recovered and mixed with food waste, such as coffee. All is then stored in an electromechanical composter for ten days. In France, composting with human organic waste is forbidden for health reasons. The association, surrounded by experts, is trying to demonstrate the contrary with the aim of marketing it.

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