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Disposing of the disposables: defining the problem; as public awareness of environmental issues rises, diapers bear much of the brunt of consumer outrage; the problems of how to dispose of the disposables and what happens to them once they are disposed of must be addressed.

Disposing Of The Disposables: Defining The Problem

as public awareness of environmental issues rises, disposable diapers bear much of the brunt of consumer outrage; the problems of how to dispose of the disposables and what happens to them once they are disposed of must be addressed

This begins a three part series on "Disposing Of Disposables," published to coincide with the Disposing of Disposables conference sponsored this month by INDA in Washington, D.C. The series will discuss the problems and possible solutions for the disposability problem, as well as review this month's landmark conference. This first article addresses the problems with solid waste in general and baby diapers in particular and the reactions of the industry and the American public to the "rising mound of garbage."

If enough people think baby diapers are the cause of the problem, then the industry must also think that way. Even if disposable diapers account for less than 2% of solid waste, they are bearing the brunt of environmental and legal challenges to the disposable way of life.

As the problem of waste management grows in this country and disposable nonwoven products--in particular baby diapers--become the focus of a great deal of heat from the public, industry consciousness about the current and potential problems is rising. Whether there is actually as big a problem as the public thinks has yet to be seen. The fact remains, however, if enough of the public thinks there's a problem, then there is a problem. And the industry better pay attention.

Much of the discussion today focuses on biodegradability and how products can be made more biodegradable. The question of exactly what biodegradability is, though, and how it can be attained, has not yet been answered. Until it is, the debate is certain to remain unfocused.

Assuming that biodegradability is not the answer, many are turning to landfills, incineration and recycling for garbage disposal solutions. These answers generate their own questions as well and the future remains foggy for these solid waste management possibilities.

Where does the answer lie? The only sure answer is that no one knows for sure. The nonwovens industry and the American public are just beginning to recognize the problem and search for a solution.

Before the problems of disposability and biodegradability can be solved, a true definition of the terms must be found. This issue has been discussed repeatedly, but no acceptable answer has been found to what makes something "disposable" or "biodegradable."

According to Eric Attle, formerly of Courtaulds Fibers, New York, NY and now an company consultant, it depends on who you ask. "Disposability has different definitions depending on where you live. Biodegradability has different definitions depending on the circumstances, whether the material is in a landfill or a sewer," he said. "We can define it once we're all speaking the same language."

The word "biodegradable" appears to be the biggest mystery of all. When something biodegrades, it's actually changing from one physical state to another, said Kit Tobin of Keep America Beautiful, an environmental group in Stamford, CT. "What happens to it depends on what it mixes with on the way."

The fact that there is no definition may be a blessing in disguise for some. "It's a brilliant marketing strategy to say something is biodegradable," said Ms. Tobin, "because there is no definition. Consumers are aware of the problem and will buy something thinking they are helping the environment."

The public's perception of biodegradability may be one of the largest problems. People think they buy something that is biodegradable, use it, throw it away and it disappears in a matter of weeks or, at most, months. Recent studies are proving this is not the case at all.

A group of archaeologists from the University of Arizona have been conducting digs into landfills in various parts of the country and uncovering some rather surprising information--little is actually biodegrading. The digs have found newspapers, food and organic materials--by their very nature degradable--still perfectly intact after years in the landfill. According to Tim Jones, who participated in the study, one recent dig into a landfill in Phoenix unearthed a newspaper--in perfect, readable condition--from 1952.

In order for material to degrade, several conditions, such as light and moisture, must be present. Without these no biodegradability occurs. Obviously in a landfill, air and moisture--thus the potential for degrading--basically do not exist.

Technologies are being examined to make products more biodegradable. One method adds corn starch to plastic to help the plastic break down faster. However, some claim the corn starch also weakens the plastic, creating a need for more plastic to maintain the strength of the product, therefore defeating the purpose. A technological compromise is needed.

Many industry personnel are optimistic about biodegradable products being developed, but worried about how it will be accepted by the consumer. "We are hoping technology will evolve that will make a product biodegradable; however, it probably won't be effective to the satisfaction of the public," said Joseph Thompson of Baxter Healthcare, McGraw Park, IL.

Conceptions And Misconceptions

Why has the disposables problem become so visible? Maybe because there's a garbage barge floating around New York harbor and maybe because New Jersey beaches have become contaminated with waste and sewage and maybe because landfills are getting fuller and no one wants new ones in their backyards. But these are actually just symptoms of a larger problem, a problem that is not going to be easily solved.

No matter how the disposability problem rose so prominently into the spotlight, the evidence remains that it is exists. Biodegradability, now coupled with the recent dioxin scare in Europe that has alerted American producers to possible problems in the U.S., is on the lips of the industry and, perhaps more harmful, the lips of the American press. The New York Times, USA Today, Time magazine and many trade journals, including Chemical and Engineering News, Vegetarian Times and Advertising Age have each published articles on biodegradability, disposing of disposables, getting rid of plastics or the problems with landfills and recycling. The public has been bombarded with the media's interpretations of the problem.

Government is also showing its awareness by proposing legislature to combat the problem. Perhaps the most publicized, and with the most potential to harm, is a proposed bill in Nebraska that bans the sale of disposable diapers that are not bio- or photodegradable by October of 1993.

Even in the world of high finance, environmentally aware stockholders are putting their money where their mouths are. Merrill Lynch is just one broker offering portfolios for the environmentally conscious. Merrill Lynch's offering is called the Environmental Technology Trust and includes only companies actively involved in environmental efforts.

INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, has acknowledged the industry's concern and organized the "Disposing of the Disposables" seminar this month in Washington, D.C. "We want to be part of the solution, not just part of the problem," said Robert Bramson, a vice president at Chicopee, New Brunswick, NJ, and chairman of INDA. "We have a responsibility to the membership. The disposability and solid waste issues are two of the most important issues we can face in the next 10-20 years.

"If the industry doesn't get its act together, government is going to get it together for us," he added. "It is important to talk about it; we want to get out on the table some of the current thinking. We are trying to do something early on."

Actions speak louder than words and technologically, action is being taken as well within the industry. Roll goods producers, raw material suppliers and even machinery manufacturers are making an effort to improve technology to make biodegradability--whatever that may be--a reality in the future.

One Person's Convenience...

The issue of consumer perceptions is a gray area when arguing the problems of biodegradability. The public has heard a lot about the problems of landfills filling up and it has seen the sewage on the beaches and in the waters. But it does not necessarily have the whole story. "There is certainly a real problem and certainly a perceived problem and the two are not the same," said Peter Isaac, vice president-marketing at Clopay, Cincinnati, OH. "There are rational solutions, but the ones that seem most popular with the media and the public so far are probably not the best ones."

The reasons for this, said Mr. Isaac, are two-fold. "Not a lot of information is available on what really happens in a landfill or an incinerator and, two, the public and the legislators do not seem to be well informed as to what little is known."

Americans will do their part to try and better their world and their environment. "People are on the verge of becoming more concerned about the impact on the environment," said Laurie Freeman, of Advertising Age, a speaker at the INDA conference. "There is some indication that this is starting to have an impact on buying behavior. Many people will buy something, and possibly pay more for it, if it is advertised as biodegradable or environmentally safe. The problem is they are buying on perception rather than on reality."

Unfortunately, a product said to be degradable may degrade under laboratory conditions with sunlight and water, but not in a dark, dry landfill. Consumers have jumped on the disposability bandwagon lugging a suitcase full of misinformation; both sides of the issue are guilty of compounding the confusion.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there," agreed James Oelkers, of Rohm and Haas, Philadelphia, PA. "People are using scare tactics on both sides." Environmentalists are possibly blowing out of proportion all the effects to the environment, while manufacturers are touting their "revolutionary" biodegradable products.

On the other hand, the public is guilty, although not consciously, of a double standard. It has been brought up in the age of convenience; manufacturers sold thousands of products because of the convenience and disposability. These products have improved the American way of life.

Yet, as many suggest, perhaps the consumer has gone convenience-crazy. "Convenience to individuals has become a crushing inconvenience to society at large," said Mr. Attle. Others agree. "We haven't been very smart," said a spokesperson from the American Paper Institute. "We are too dependent on products that are very disposable. We have gone overboard."

The consumer is also guilty of wanting to have his cake and eat it too, and at a low cost. "I don't know if there are solutions that people are willing to pay for," said Mr. Attle. "Consumers want us to get rid of this garbage, but 'don't put an incinerator in my backyard and don't raise my taxes to pay for it.'"

There must be a compromise made, said Mr. Attle. "If Americans want to keep using as much plastic and paper as they do, they must decide how much of the good life they want and how much they are willing to pay for it."

Ms. Tobin of Keep America Beautiful thinks herein lies the problem. "People are not willing to compromise." she said. "We cannot say we want clean air but oppose emissions standards on cars."

A Quick Quiz

Test your environmental knowledge. How much of the garbage in a landfill do you think is made up of fast food packaging? That includes all the containers and packaging that hold your McDonald's hamburgers at lunch ... 10%, maybe 20%? What about disposable diapers in the solid waste stream ...25% ...30%?

In fact, fast food packaging makes up less than one third of 1% of all the garbage in a landfill, according to recent studies. It all comes back to perception and the public's awareness of a multiplicity of fast food around them.

Diapers are encountering the same misconception. "Diapers have an equally dramatic public image," said William Rathje, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona in a recent paper on Source Reduction and Landfill Myths. "Their quantities are often estimated at between five and 40%. The Garbage Project's three test landfills found total diapers were less than 1% by weight and 1.5% by volume of all sampled materials."

The other side of the story is told by Carl Lehrburger, who published a report, "Diapers In The Waste Stream," sponsored by the National Association of Diaper Services. "Disposable diapers (16-18 billion a year) account for 90% of all diapers, and 82% of these end up in a landfill," he said. "With the exception of newspapers and beverage and food containers, no other single consumer product represents as much municipal solid waste," the report claimed.

The question, then, is not whether diapers are a problem, but rather how much of a problem they are and if the pros outweigh the cons.

The answer may be centering the public's attention on solid waste in general, not just a particular segment. "The major problem is garbage in general," said Mr. Oelkers, of Rohm and Haas. "What are we going to do with all our waste?" Others outside the industry agree, too. "The perspective of the public needs to be changed," said Mr. Jones, of the University of Arizona. "There should be a massive attack on all solid waste, not just plastic components."

The industry's way of changing public perception is to concentrate on the benefits of disposable diapers. "Plastics, synthetics and nonwovens all have significant advantages in terms of product performance," said Mr. Isaac, of Clopay. "They have improved our way of life and most of us don't want to go back."

"The value of single use has to be re-emphasized concerning the disposability issue," added Michael Donnelly, business manager-Sontara, of DuPont, Wilmington, DE, and chairman of INDA's Disposability Committee. "It is very important that there be an understanding of the true hazards involved in disposability. The image now is that a lead battery presents the same health hazard as a plastic coke bottle. The image of the hazard must be clarified."

Cost, as always, is an issue at the forefront of any change. Disposables must remain economically feasible as well. "The challenge is to manage the costs of disposing of disposables to maintain the cost adavantages disposables offer," said Mr. Thompson, of Baxter Healthcare, during a recent industry talk.

Where Does The Garbage Go?

The question of where to dispose of disposables presents a problem in itself. Right now, there are three main options--landfills, incineration and recycling.

Landfills have been the answer for most of the garbage in most of the country, but that solution is quickly disappearing. "One-third of the nation's landfills will be full by 1993," said an EPA draft report "The Solid Waste Dilemna: An Agenda For Action." Ten years ago there were 20,000 landfills nationwide, according to a report by Midwest Plastic Materials, Stoughton, WI. Today there are 10,000, many close to capacity. And the ones that are still operational are having problems of their own. "Dumps have gotten a bad name," said a recent article in Vegetarian Times. "Many are leaking toxic chemicals and contaminating groundwater." There have been at least 146 documented cases of groundwater contamination nationwide.

If landfills are taken out of the picture, the incineration option remains. However, opposition to this solution is strong, and the cost of burning can be very high.

Some of the research done on incineration has discovered some frightening statistics. "A 1000 ton a day incinerator would spit between 79 and 1762 pounds of lead, one of several additives used to make plastic," estimates the Environmental Defense Fund, "as well as cadmium and chromium, both believed to increase cancer risk. These metallic elements do not combust and are present in air emissions and ash. Hydrochloric acids and dioxins are also produced."

The final solution is recycling. Yet most consumers view collecting and separating their garbage as more trouble than it's worth and it will take some time before this method gains public acceptance. Dennis Sabourin of Wellman Inc., Johnsonville, SC, a company heavily involved in recycling PET bottles, feels the problem is a lack of a collecting and sorting system. "98.8% of the bottles Wellman received came from nine states with mandatory recycling laws. Curbside recycling may be moving, but at a very slow pace," he said.

Perhaps making recycling mandatory to recycle is the answer. Whatever the means, the EPA wants to "reach of goal of 25% management of municipal solid waste through source reduction and recycling by 1992." Perhaps, as was recently seen in an article on recycling in Time magazine, "economics will force the country to face up to recycling in a way idealism could not."

Part of the recycling problem also lies in the law of supply versus demand. Before recycling can be totally successful, there must be a market for the recycled product. A general downgrading occurs when a product is recycled and end uses must be developed to take these changes into consideration.

The nonwovens industry is heavily involved in recycling. Perhaps the most publicized effort was announced a few months ago by Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, OH. The diaper giant, working with the Seattle Solid Waste Utility and Rabandaco, will be collecting dirty diapers from 1000 volunteer households in four states, washing and sanitizing them and separating them into paper and pulp for recycling.

P&G is also funding a study of a compost pile in St. Cloud, MN made up for disposable diapers it will transport from St. Paul.

Competitor Kimberly-Clark is funding a study in Ann Arbor, MI in conjunction with the National Sanitation Foundation to evaluate disposable diapers in a compost chamber, as well as examining design changes in its Huggies disposable diapers. K-C also recycles diapers at its Paris, TX plant that do not meet quality standards.

Wellman is recycling PET bottles into nonwovens, finding applications in geotextiles and carpet facing fibers for its products. The Rutgers University (NJ) Center for Plastics Recycling Research is working on an array of end uses for its recycled plastics and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville is seeking funding for a project to recycle PET bottles into meltblown fabrics. This accounts for only some of the activity going on within the nonwovens industry as it deals with the ongoing problem.

A Little TLC

The consensus of what is needed to solve this problem is time, learning and cooperation. A solution is not going to appear overnight. "We're just at the beginning of trying to understand the problem," said Mr. Attle. "Major research is going on that's not going to go anywhere. We're going to throw a lot of money away chasing moonbeams when we should sit down and think things through."

Mr. Isaac of Clopay agreed. "There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of debate to take place," he said.

The need to work together must also be emphasized. Mr. Jones felt the problem will only be solved if government, consumers and corporations work together. Ms. Tobin of Keep America Beautiful concurred. "Because we have such diversity in this country, no one wants to work together on this problem. We must get the leaders of the community to get together," she said.

Likewise, landfilling, incineration and recycling must all be considered together. "We feel that some combination of recycling (perhaps involving new technology), incineration and continued landfilling is probably the rational solution," said Mr. Isaac.

Education is also a primary means to the desired end. Letting the public know exactly what is going on once garbage leaves its hands and what they can do about it will bring the industry, and the country, much closer to a solution. "What is really needed is a reassessment of values, a reeducating of the public," said Mr. Attle. "It really requires changing the lifestyles of people."

The answer, many also believe, is going to be market-driven and cost effective. The technology may be there, but without the demand, it is a long, expensive project. The cost will warrant the development of new ideas and designs, or the customer will discover a new use for a recycled disposable.

"We need to develop a market for waste," said consultant and Nonwovens Industry columnist Thomas Holliday. "Someone will figure out a way to make money out of garbage, it's the American way."
COPYRIGHT 1989 Rodman Publications, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Special Report: Disposing of Disposables; part 1 of 3; includes related article
Author:Noonan, Ellen
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Previous Article:A flat quarter for nonwoven fibers: first quarter 1989 staple shipments to nonwovens were 141 million pounds; polyester increased, while rayon...
Next Article:The top companies in the worldwide nonwovens industry.

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