IT IS estimated that it takes over 200 years for a used disposable diaper to decompose in a landfill.
Based on findings by the National Solid Waste Management Department (JPSPN), 12% of our landfill waste consists of disposable diaper waste.
This is almost the same amount as the total plastic waste in our landfills.
There are numerous campaigns to reduce and even ban the use of plastic and polystyrene in the country, particularly at state government level.
However, there is no campaign here both from the government and private sector to encourage recycling of used disposable diapers.
Based on studies by Environment and Waste Management specialist Dr Theng Lee Chong, disposable diaper waste is overlooked in the country.
He cited a report sent to The National Association of Diaper Services US; that no one knows how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose.
However, it is estimated to be at least 250-500 years.
“They do not degrade well in a landfill and will retain their original weight, volume and form,” said Dr Theng.
He added the super absorbent gel and the plastic material in the disposable diapers that takes longer to decompose; maybe even up to 500 years.
“Imagine the diaper worn by your baby today will be around at the landfill even after the time of your great-grand children,” he said.
Based on a study done last year, there are some 1.62 million toddlers between the age of zero to two-and-half years old in the country.
If every child uses six pieces of disposable diaper a day, there would be some 3.5 billion pieces at our landfills every year.
Malaysians use about 9.72 million pieces of diapers in a day, he said.
Dr Theng added that an excrement- filled disposable diaper is bulky, heavy and contains moisture.
A child’s used disposable diaper could weigh between 0.3kg and 0.5kg a piece.
A conservative figure shows the weight of the discarded disposable diapers in a year could be 1.5 million tonnes.
If an adult male elephant weighs 1,800kg, the 1.5 million tonnes is equivalent to the weight of over 833,000 elephants.
“If we take a conservative figure of 10 million pieces of used disposable diaper in a day; within two days we could line up disposable diapers along the coastline of peninsular Malaysia which is 2,068 km long,” said Dr Theng.
He came up with that figure by arranging 10 used disposable diapers in a row which is about a meter long.
Dr Theng said there were no efforts to promote recycling of diapers; or waste separation for disposable diapers in the country.
The quantity and impact from disposable diapers are huge, however under our waste separation exercise, disposable diapers are classified as non-recyclable and dumped into the landfills.
“We often hear campaigns to ban plastics and polystyrenes for food packaging.
“However, there is no recycling of diapers in the country and nobody is taking up this issue.
“Right now all used diapers end up in the landfills,” he said.
Dr Theng said diapers could be recycled, but it can only be done if the Government and the relevant authorities spearhead the campaign.
He added currently there was no demand for the disposable diaper recycling business.
“If the Government, were to formulate a policy or create a legal framework it would be possible to encourage the recycling of disposable diapers,” he said.
Dr Theng said if the Government steps in, it could effectively create a mechanism whereby collection, treatment and the recycling could be achieved.
He said that is how it was practised in developed countries such as Japan.
He added the Government could actually set standards for the disposable diapers.
“Some diapers are only able to withstand few hours of usage.
“These diapers are usually cheaper in price.
“Unfortunately this encourages people to use more diapers due to its lower absorption,” he said, adding that this meant that more diapers would end up at the landfill.
Dr Theng said in some cities in Japan, the recycled diapers are converted into fuel.
“They are turned into small pellets and are used in factories for fuel,” he said.
Dr Theng said disposable diapers were not only used by the children but also by ailing senior citizens.
“We must also bear in mind the elderly would be using larger diapers thus the waste generated would be more.
“No studies have been done on that yet,” said Dr Theng.
He added that the penetration rate of the disposable diapers in the market keeps increasing with the introduction of cheaper disposable diapers.
This would just encourage more usage especially among the low-income groups thus the number of users would increase, he said, adding that the situation posed environmental-related problems.
The plastic components in the solid waste, global warming, water pollution and public health, air pollution and non-renewable resource consumption are among the issues.
“Methane emissions occurs and there is possible leachate to groundwater due to the presence of organic wastes.
“Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributed to global warming.
“Human faeces can contain harmful pathogens and could end up leaking into local water bodies or contaminate ground water and potentially cause the public to be exposed via insects, pets and rodents,” he said.
Dr Theng said dioxin and furan were two of the most hazardous toxins produced when incomplete combustion takes place.
Greenhouse gases, chlorine and carbon monoxide are also produced when diapers are incinerated without proper control measures.
“The greatest health risk from open burning of diapers at a waste disposal ground is inhalation of smoke and odour.
“The ash which may be dispersed by the wind or leached by the water may contain toxic contaminates, which may lead to respiratory problems,” he said.
Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia (Cetdem) executive director Anthony Tan said the disposable diapers retain moisture and attracts more moisture at the landfill.
“These are trapped moisture that does not get into the water cycle which would result in rain droplets.
“We are not certain what happens when it goes into the landfill,” he said.
He added there are also questions on what happens when stray animals eat these discarded disposable diapers.
“We are not sure what happens to our other ecosystem such as the animals,” said Tan who recommended that the public could find ways to use alternative to diapers such as the cloth diaper.
“We should move away from relying 100% on the disposable diapers,” he said, adding that parents should look at other more environmentally-friendly options such as cloth diapers.
Meanwhile, Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA) project manager Francis Valladares said disposable diapers were made with a combination of materials such as cotton and plastic.
He said it would make recycling disposable diapers harder but it could be done.
“Disposable diapers are a complex product.
“There has been no recycling of disposable diapers done in the country. It would not be easy,” he said.
Lavania Suppiayah, 33, who has a child, said she uses cloth diapers most of the time because she wants to cut cost as well as be kind to the environment.
Based on her calculation, in just a year she could save between RM3,000 and RM5,000 by using cloth diapers.
However, she uses disposable diapers for her baby only when it is necessary such as going for a function which could take several hours.
“I knew from earlier on that these disposable diapers are not biodegradable.
“The extra cash I get by using cloth diapers goes towards purchasing nutritious food for my baby,” she said.
Lavania said it was not a hassle for her to clean the cloth diapers as she has a planned system.
“I have a few cloth diapers and I rotate them,” said the working mother who washes the used cloth diapers daily.
Melur Abdul Rahman, who is mother of three children, said she started using the cloth diaper since the birth of her second child in the US.
“My husband was doing his Masters and we were on a tight budget.
“Buying disposable diapers was tough on our budget.
“Also the midwife in the US encouraged us to use the cloth diaper.
“It came naturally for me to wash and change these cloth diapers,” said Melor.