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Disposing of the disposables: finding the solutions.

Disposing Of The Disposables: Finding The Solutions

as debate on the disposables problem mounts, government agencies, Congress and individual companies search for solutions; part two of our series finds there is a growing awareness that there is no easy answer

This article is the second in a three part series focusing on Disposing of the Disposables. In last month's article, we looked at the problems associated with disposing of disposables in general and baby diapers in particular. This month we examine some of the solutions offered by government, industry and consumer groups. Whatever the answer is, it's going to be a long, long process. That's the consensus when the question is how to get rid of garbage ... how to dispose of the disposables.

While this is certainly not a new problem, only relatively recently has it gained the public eye and, therefore, become a problem on a larger scale, particularly for the plastics and disposables industries. Because society is just beginning to address the issue, however, no one is completely sure of the best way to attack it. Many are going around in circles, analyzing the beast but not drawing weapons yet.

There are some companies that have bravely thrown their hats in the ring and started recycling programs, biodegradability studies and a rash of experiments in hopes of finding an answer. Eventually one--or several--will be found, but what should be stressed until then is that everyone must be made aware of the problem and be willing to work on the solution while remaining cognizant of the fact that no one idea is going to solve the nation's garbage problem.

"The worst solution is to approach the problem in a piecemeal fashion," said a recently-released report by Allied Signal entitled "Plastics and the Solid Waste Problem--An Update." "Banning of products, mandating recycling but not providing adequate resources for public education or collection" are not going to help the problem.

Likewise, a solution demands a cooperative approach. "Industry alone can't solve the problem," said Eric Attle, formerly with Courtaulds Fibers, New York, NY, and now a company consultant. "They are part of the solution, just as the legislature is part of the solution, but consumers, who are making the most noise and understand the least about it, are also a major contributor to the problem and, thus, the solution. How to collect the garbage, separate it and deal with it sensibly is the question and this is the consumer's role."

Some experts have very definite ideas about who should be doing what. Tim Jones, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona who is involved in its Garbage Project, said that "the problem will be solved only if the government, consumers and corporations work together. At the consumer and manufacturer level, there should be less packaging. And government should make it mandatory that all government paper be recycled and motivate businesses to get involved.

"We also need to make liveable landfills," he continued, "as well as raising the public's awareness about landfills and composting. If you composted everything that can be composted--leaves, food and wood--and recycled all newspapers, these two things alone could reduce landfills 25-30%."

Plastics, Cotton And ...

While biodegradability remains a goal, it may not be a viable solution. As has been determined by landfill excavations, not much is degrading, including naturally degradable articles such as food and paper. The problem then lies in education. "Biodegradability is not a solution," said Scott Stewart, of Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, OH, "because it does not occur to any major extent in landfills. The problem is educating the people about this."

The report by Allied Signal concurred. "Degradability should be seen as only a possible contributor, not as a major part of the overall solution," it pointed out.

On the subject of biodegradable plastics, which many diaper film manufacturers are researching, the report added that "although biodegradable plastic is attractive at first look, many unanswered questions remain. The facts are that we don't know enough today about the health and environmental effects of degradable plastics to support their widespread use. In addition, if, as it is hoped, widespread recycling is to become a reality, then the introduction of plastics that are degradable or have biodegradable additives incorporated will make recycling more difficult."

If biodegradability is doubtful as a solution, the question then arises concerning cotton disposable diapers. After all, one of their chief benefits is their biodegradability. The key phrase in the previous sentence, however, is one of the chief benefits.

"Biodegradability is not the main reason consumers want cotton," said Charles Lapidus, vice president-nonwovens marketing at Cotton, Inc., New York, NY, the marketing arm of the U.S. cotton growrs. "There is a growing awareness in the public; the consumer is discovering products she thought contained cotton do not. Consumers want cotton next to their baby's skin." He did agree that biodegradability had served to bring attention to what comprises a baby diaper, raising consumer consciousness about the lack of cotton in this application.

Cotton suppliers themselves agreed. "From a marketing standpoint, cotton has two things to sell," said John Smith, sales manager at Barnhardt Manufacturing, Charlotte, NC. "One is the name cotton and all that means. The other is biodegradability, which has become fashionable now."

It appears that biodegradability is helping develop an awareness of cotton for its other attributes as well. "We feel that over the long haul, the biodegradability issue should improve the demand for cotton in diapers," said Bart Morse, general manager, Veratec's Natural Fibers Group, Walpole, MA. "However, we have not seen that much importance placed on biodegradability. It's a reason, but not the main one."

Dafoe & Dafoe, a Canadian diaper manufacturer, obviously thinks biodegradability overall is a vital selling point. It recently introduced "Nappies Ultra Biodegradable 100% Non-Chlorine Bleached Disposable Diapers." Killing two birds with one stone, the diapers are produced with a bleached chemi-thermomechanical pulp process that uses hydrogen peroxide and no organochlorides. The company also claims the new Nappies are 92.4% biodegradable, as the backsheet is made with the Ecostar starch-additive process.

Dafoe & Dafoe has also introduced "Nappies Chemical Free," a thicker biodegradable diaper that does not contain superabsorbents and features a 100% cotton coverstock.

RMED International, a division of Rocky Mountain Medical, Sedona, AZ, has gone a step further by using a new plastic backsheet on its "TenderCare" diapers that it claims is biodegradable even in U.S. landfills. The plastic backsheet, which is manufactured by Archer Daniels, utilizes mineral salts that make the sheet degrade with or without oxygen. The diapers, made by Weyerhaeuser, are also chemical-free. The updated TenderCare diapers have been available commercially for several months through health food stores or by calling an 800 number for next-day delivery.

The Challenges Of Change

The cost of making any of the suggested changes is a primary concern to suppliers. Any kind of change--whether actually inventing a biodegradable product, putting into place a national mandatory recycling campaign or building a new landfill or incinerator--is going to cost money. Those crying for justice and an end to this problem, as well as those working to find a logical solution, must be aware of the price involved.

"Legislators and regulators must recognize that long range planning cannot be done in the absence of predictable costs," said the report by Allied Signal. "Significant funds are needed to establish comprehensive resource recovery and recycling programs and, to have an economically useful life, they must not be made obsolete by frequent legislative or regulatory changes."

Of course, concerns also arise from issues other than cost. While building a landfill or incinerator will certainly cost a great deal, many people simply do not want either anywhere near them, even if it's free. Allied's report coins the acronym NIMBY--Not In My Backyard--and this reflects attitudes nationwide.

The Move To Recycling

In view of the lack of biodegradability and the opposition to and cost of landfills and incinerators, it appears the only logical choice is recycling. Many are taking this path on the road to a solution.

There are some very successful recycling programs already in progress. One extremely successful example is in Seattle, WA, where, Carl Wostendiek of the Seattle Solid Waste Utility told Nonwovens Industry, "the goal is to recycle 60% of the waste stream by 1998." The current figure stands at 30%, an amazingly high number considering that recycling is not yet mandatory in the state. "We have many recycling programs," Mr. Wostendiek said, "and the people are chipping in and doing their share."

Several private companies are also concentrating on recycling on a national level and looking at nonwovens for the end product of the process. ORFA, a Cherry Hill, NJ, recycling company, has an automated recycling technology that takes unseparated municipal solid waste and separates it into three types, one of which is fiber. The fiber, divided into coarse, medium and fine sections, holds potential for the nonwovens industry. "There is no reason a cellulose-based product that has been chemically cleaned would not be appropriate for a nonwoven raw material," said ORFA's David Kraus. "We are looking at fiberboard material and wipes as possible markets."

Likewise, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville is working on a project for recycling PET bottles into melt blown nonwoven fabrics. It is doing preliminary work and seeking funding for a grant from a variety of states and associations, including NAPCOR, the Society of the Plastics Industry and the Plastic Bottle Institute and nonwovens companies such as Exxon and Eastman Kodak.

"There are six kinds of plastic that all packaging materials are made of," project chairperson Molly Dever told Nonwovens Industry. "These are the same six used in melt blown technology." The markets for these possible fabrics will not compete with current nonwovens markets, however, she pointed out. "The standards for sanitary conditions and quality are too high." Possibilities do include geotextiles, automotive and agricultural applications.

The answer to making recycling successful is to work on the problem vertically, Ms. Dever added. "We are trying to get the entire chain involved, from the garbage collection agency to the consumer. If we can achieve vertical integration, we have a much better chance of being successful."

Wellman, Inc., Johnsonville, SC, has achieved success by working with recycling on a number of levels. The company recycles PET bottles for use in fibers and engineering resins for injection moldings. The polyester fibers are used for carpeting and geotextiles, some of which are made by the company's Bonded Fibers Div.

From The Top Down ...

Other companies that are involved in the plastics and nonwovens industries are doing their part in the recycling mania sweeping the nation. DuPont, Wilmington, DE, the largest U.S. nonwovens roll goods producer and also one that has a stake in the fibers and plastics markets, has started an aggressive national recycling campaign in a joint venture agreement with Waste Management, Inc.

Waste Management has a "Recycle America" plan that adds plastics to other recyclable materials it is collecting from about one million homes in 90 different communities. Facilities to sort and reclaim the plastics will be constructed by the two companies, with the first expected to be operational early next year. DuPont will then purchase the recycled plastics and use its own technology to improve the product for appliances, automotive, building and consumer products.

Dow Chemical, Midland, MI, has formed a joint venture with Domtar, Montreal, Canada. The two companies will form a North American plastics recycling company that will process the PET and HDPE plastics from 600 million containers a year. This plant should be running by the end of 1990.

The cost comparison of using virgin versus recycled materials adds to the argument for recycling. The cost of new PET is about a $1 a pound, said Ms. Dever, of UTK, "plus about $.80 or $.90 a pound in energy costs. The recycled PET is much cheaper, at only $.40 a pound."

Likewise, the cost of recycled geotextiles compared with those made with virgin fibers is relatively equal. "The main cost is in the cleaning and processing that must be done with recycled fibers," said Wellman's Dennis Sabourin. "With recycled fibers you have a lower raw material cost, but a high manufacturing cost, while the opposite is true with virgin fiber. And the material we sell is all first quality."

The Landmark P&G Plan

No discussion of recycling programs and nonwovens companies is complete without a mention of Procter & Gamble's innovative plan to collect used diapers for recycling. The program, scheduled to begin this fall, involves collecting dirty diapers from 1000 volunteer households in four states, washing and sanitizing them and separating them into paper and pulp for recycling. "The objective is to determine the most efficient and most cost effective way to reclaim paper and plastic," said Mr. Stewart. "Recycling and composting represent large opportunities."

P&G is also sponsoring a composting project in Minnesota to examine composted baby diapers. "We already know composting works," Mr. Stewart added. "But we want to understand the process. Because diapers represent such a small portion of the waste stream, they cannot be differentiated in a regular compost pile. This is our answer."

Although Kimberly-Clark, Dallas, TX, is not yet attempting to recycle soiled diapers, it is recycling diapers that do not meet quality standards during the manufacturing process. This is done at the company's Paris, TX, plant, where an incinerator reuses the diapers for energy.

The Government Speaks

Predictably, the government is also getting in on the recycling act. H.R. Bill 500, the "Recyclable Materials Science and Technology Development Act," was recently introduced to authorize a comprehensive consumer product recycling program on a national level. The bill states that after a four year review by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Commerce Dept., all consumer items deemed recyclable would be identified and listed. All remaining items must be made biodegradable. After an additional year, the sale of certain nonrecyclable or nonbiodegradable items would be prohibited.

The government agency most involved in the environmental problems with the disposables, EPA, is doing its part to clean up the problem. It has set a recycling goal of 25% of all municipal solid waste by 1992. The EPA's Bruce Weddle sees this as possible. "It can be done, but it's not going to be easy. We do sense growing public support, though," he said.

EPA has also developed a hierarchy of integrated waste management. In descending order, waste should be dealt with by source reduction, recycling, incineration and landfilling. "We'd like to see it not produced at all; if it does have to be produced, let's make it less toxic and recycle to the greatest extent possible," said Mr. Weddle.

Possible suggestions to make source reduction work include product substitution, raw material substitution and product reuse on a process-by-process level. The final product must be reusable or capable of being recycled, incinerated or landfilled without side effects.

After surviving earlier threats of legislation banning them in New Jersey and Massachusetts, disposable diapers are once again under legislative attack, despite the fact that research has indicated they make up less than 2% of all the waste in a landfill.

In 1988, in the state of Washington, house bill 1684 was introduced requiring a comprehensive statewide waste stream analysis, giving priority to categories of solid waste that "present a high potential of harm to human health," including disposable diapers. Previous bills introduced include one to make it unlawful to sell, offer or display for sale at retail any disposable diapers without the warning: "Soiled disposable diapers contain viruses and microbes which may transmit diseases when disposed of improperly. Fibrous material must not be disposed of with garbage or trash."

Disposable diapers are also under attack in Nebraska, where a bill was passed on May 9 banning the sale of any disposable diaper that is not bio- or photodegradable by October, 1993. The banning is contingent on a determination by the Dept. of Environmental Control that bio- or photodegradable diapers are readily available and priced comparably (not more than 5% more).

And In The End...

While many companies, both in and out of the nonwovens industry, have stepped up their recycling efforts, there can be no solution without a market for these recycled products. "Recycling is one answer, but we are running out of markets for the garbage that is recycled," said Mr. Jones, of the University of Arizona. "Recycling programs will work if they are built into the market system; they (suppliers) will recycle what they can sell."

In other cases, the problem lies only in supplying enough material to recycle into a proven market. "Last year we recycled more than 110 million pounds of PET soft drink bottles," said Mr. Sabourin, of Wellman. "We could handle twice that much today if we could get it from communities, but it's just not being collected in enough places yet."

Perhaps it's also a matter of educating the public about the potential of markets that exist and new ones to be developed. "Maybe we need a focus on marketing," said Ms. Dever, of UTK. "We need to say `not only are you doing the ecology and the environment a favor, but you can also make a profit.'"

Many end uses already do exist for recycled material. For example, PET can be recycled into fiberfill for upholstery and ski jacket linings. According to a report in the Vegetarian Times, "Five two-liter PET bottles can stuff a ski jacket."

Several automotive applications are also viable end use markets for recycled as well as synthetic fiber waste. Under floor insulator and various shoddy pads are just some of the automotive uses for recycled fiber.

Another possible end use is plastic wood articles. Under the EPA hierarchy, part of the recycled materials--those separated but unsorted and comingled plastics that could not be identified--would be sent to a comingled plastics facility where, using special extrusion equipment, the product would be molded into plastic wood for use as fence posts, patio furniture, marine construction, landscape timbers, playground equipment and car stops.

The simple fact remains that there must be a viable end use market for recycled products or they will only end up landfilled as well.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Rodman Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:part 2 of 3; includes related article
Author:Noonan, Ellen
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Oct 1, 1989
Previous Article:The dynamics of managing change.
Next Article:Automatic waste collection: an environmental and economic waste management consideration.

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