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Disposing of the disposables.

When this issue surfaced as a major factor within the nonwovens industry in the late 1980's, many never dreamed the topic would explode as such a powder keg in the consumer press and among the American public. Whether a result of a propaganda attack by environmental lobbyists or saturation coverage by the general press, the situation has certainly escalated to epic proportions.

Whatever the cause, the results are quite obvious and, as has been written before, "perception is reality" when it comes to an issue as volatile as the environment. The nonwovens industry has been scrambling to combat the negative press and has survived admirably, if the recent Disposing of the Disposables" conference hosted by INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, is any indication (see sidebar in this issue for more on that recent meeting). A united front has been presented by a traditionally competitive industry and the problem of disposing of the disposables has encouraged all significant parties to work together in the face of adversity

Education and technology have been the two primary offensives launched by the disposables industry. While last year at this time the consumer was just starting to become aware of the problems with the environment and baby diapers' exaggerated impact on it, the onslaught of press the issue has received has certainly affected their judgement. Unfortunately for the nonwovens industry, for the most part this judgement has been anti-disposables.

The nonwovens industry faces an uphill battle to combat these negative feelings. But, on other hand, disposables continue to offer significant convenience, absorbency and health characteristics that will allow them to hold their hard-earned advances. Continuing technology also encourages the development of better diapers and of more efficient disposal methods.

Once again Nonwovens Industry, in its quest to keep its readers abreast of the current status of consumer opinion, is offering a review of the news and reporting throughout the past few months that deal with the disposability issue. There has been a lot going on in the newspapers and magazines, in R&D labs and at governmental meetings. Everyone is now conscious of the environmental issue, most have taken sides and much is going on. Here's a rundown of some of that action: When Procter & Gamble talks, people listen. This is true on a worldwide basis, not only in the U.S. It seems only fitting to begin a disposability roundup by commenting on what P&G has been doing on the European front. During a recent interview at Procter & Gamble in Schwalbach, West Germany, William Hopping, section head for professional and regulatory relations for P&G Europe's paper products, told Nonwovens Industry that the European environmental situation is not much different than in the U.S. "Only 1-2% of solid waste is made up of diapers in Europe, just like the U.S.," said Mr. Hopping, but perception plays a large role in how diapers and solid waste are viewed. The issues associated with decreasing landfill space and public resistance to incineration are also prevalent in Europe. Environmental groups have high credibility and influence the public's thinking on environmental issues.'

P&G Europe, not surprisingly, follows the same general beliefs as its U.S. parent. The company is operating according to a worldwide solid waste policy that supports the hierarchy of waste management needs recommended by the EPA-source reduction, composting/recycling/reuse, incineration and landfilling.

After source reduction, P&G's priority for diapers is composting. "Our fundamental objective is to promote composting as a better way to manage a significant fraction of municipal solid waste," said Mr. Hopping. Diapers fit in, but composting makes sense and should be done even if there were no diapers. P&G is committed to help build a composting infrastructure."

In March, P&G Europe started a compost project at an existing facility in Asslar, West Germany to demonstrate the compatibility of diapers with the process. About 80% of the households with children in diapers participated. A broad number of parameters are being measured, including compost quality and hygienic aspects. Plant growth tests will also be done on the compost. P&G is also planning composting projects in other countries, including Switzerland, Belgium and Holland that will cover the range of composting techniques. The aim is to establish the compatibility of diapers on a broad basis.

P&G is also conducting a similar program in the U.S. to demonstrate the compatibility of diapers. "Our project in St. Cloud, MN has been successful," Mr. Hopping said. Seven out of eight existing municipal solid waste systems in the U.S. currently compost diapers. The real need, obviously, is for more composters and we're aggressively working this issue in Europe and North America."

More broadly, P&G believes it is essential to concentrate on the real solid waste issues and solutions. Mr. Hopping pointed out that "public perception sometimes does not align very well with the facts and science. Society must address the larger problems of solid waste. If 30-60% of municipal solid waste can be converted in valuable compost, the real question is why aren't we all working to do more composting and put the necessary infrastructure into place? That's a real solution to the real problem and is a key focus of our efforts."

Research programs for material recycling of soiled diapers are another part of P&G's solid waste initiatives. A project similar to the Seattle reclamation program in the U.S. is underway at a government laboratory in the U.K. Soiled diapers will first undergo sanitization, followed by shredding, sorting and screening. The U.K. project will examine a dry process, as compared to the wet-based process in Seattle.

In addition, P&G, along with 18 other international companies, has formed an association to work with national and local governments and EC authorities towards finding a comprehensive approach to recycling and recovery of resources from used packaging in household waste. The association, which was formed last fall, will demonstrate and test viable systems of separate collection of materials from household waste; pilot projects are being developed and implemented throughout Europe.

Another focus of the P&G efforts is in combatting the perception that disposable diapers are somehow more environmentally harmful than reusables. One way of comparing cloth and disposable diapers is by conducting a lifestyle, or so-called "cradle to grave," analysis of each option. P&G Europe recently completed and published such an analysis in conjunction with the Technical University in Berlin. The overall conclusion: "Both options represent a small fraction of resource use and waste generation by society more broadly .. 4% of the population at any one time is being diapered ... diapering with either option requires less than 1 % of the respective category of resources used nationwide and wastes generated ... both options use materials common to everyday life and have a history of safe use ... either option is environmentally acceptable."

The well-known consulting firms of Arthur D. Little and Franklin Associates recently completed similar reports in the U.S. under sponsorship by P&G and the American Paper Institute. They reached similar conclusions.

Mr. Hopping believes the science is beginning to have an impact. The West German government, in response to parliamentarian inquiries by the Green Party on baby diapers, in March took the position that it 'sees no necessity to influence in any way the market habit of consumers for environmental reasons." The official response pointed out that "neither of the two diapering types show significant advantages under consideration of all environmental aspects like raw material needs, solid waste, wastewater, air emissions and energy demand."

As Mr. Hopping added, "A key to making progress in drawing perception closer to reality is right science, timely science and effectively communicated science." That formula was apparently successful in Germany and may help us to make progress in other areas. Time will tell." With Procter & Gamble leading the way, the nonwovens industry continues its quest to solve the issues confronting it. However, in enemy camps, the environmentalists continue their lobby to tax, ban or use whatever means necessary to get rid of disposables. Here are some examples of what's been happening in the fight between cloth and disposables.

The oft-cited example that all the disposable diapers thrown out in one year alone could stretch to the moon and back, seven times, was published several times in a variety of literature available to the public in recent months. When arguing about saving the environment, an example like that paints a very vivid picture of what young parents are doing every time they put a diaper on their child. Armed with that kind of ammunition, cloth diaper services have prospered. According to the National Association of Diaper Services, the number of families signing up for these service rose 39% in 1989. Also, 10 times more requests for information from people interested in starting their own diaper service were received.

Many hospitals across the country are beginning to make the switch from disposables to reusable cloth diapers. Hackensack Medical Center, Hackensack, NJ, Mountainside Hospital, Montclair, NJ, United Hospital and Children's Hospital, both of St. Paul, MN, Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, KS and a host of other hospitals have changed back to reusables.

A law passed in Wisconsin offers tax breaks for cloth diaper users and diaper services. California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont, Arkansas, Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington are all considering bans on non-biodegradable diapers. A proposed measure in Florida would prohibit the sale of any disposable diapers. Special taxes on disposables are pending in Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Texas. And as has already been well documented, Nebraska has actually approved a ban on nonbiodegradable disposable diapers, set to take effect in 1993.

An article in Forbes magazine (March 5) attacks baby diapers and suggests a tax as the answer. "A tax on single-use diapers ... will pay the true costs of their disposal," the well-respected magazine wrote. "Cloth diapers are the obvious solution to the Pampers problem. They cost about half of what the single-use variety does and they decompose in six months. To encourage more parents to use cloth diapers, a tax should be slapped on disposables that is roughly equivalent to tipping fees of $100 a ton. The added costs, about 40 cents on every diaper dollar spent, might just convince some mothers to return to cloth. Those who want to continue to use Pampers can, but must pay the full price, including the environmental component."

Interestingly, the cover of the magazine screamed the question "Can We Have A Cleaner Environment And Pampers Too?" Yet inside, it took almost three full pages before baby diapers were even mentioned. It certainly seems that while baby diapers are a problem, albeit a small one, they are certainly the button to push when it comes to getting the attention of the American consumer.

The Forbes article also generated interest among its readership. In the April 16 issue of the magazine, responses to the March article were printed. Four letters were published, all unanimously and strongly against banning or taxing baby diapers.

The April 20 Wall Street journal also ran an article saying that a recent poll had shown that Americans would sacrifice to help save the environment. In a Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll, voters-by a three-to-one margin-said they'd favor a ban on disposable diapers. The article did go on to say, "Of course, people might have second thoughts about some of the tradeoffs if actually faced with the prospect of having to make them. For instance, the poll found that even 56% of those with children under age three favor a ban on disposable diapers, a figure that might drop significantly if this became a real possibility"

A more recent poll, published in the June 11 Advertising Age, also reported that more and more consumers were favoring a tax or ban on disposable diapers. According to the Gallup survey, 38% "strongly favor" or "favor" a tax on disposable diapers, while 52% oppose it. The issue of banning disposable diapers was also undertaken, with a full 43% supporting a ban; 47% are against the idea.

On a more positive note, according to Parenting magazine (May 1990), "the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the American Public Health Association, will recommend that disposables be used in day care centers to help prevent the spread of rotaviruses (a common cause of diarrhea) and other diseases that can result from coming into contact with infected excrement."

Another study that was more recently released was done by Arthur D. Little, an international management and technical consulting firm. The study, under some scrutiny because it was funded by Procter & Gamble, was designed to provide an objective evaluation of the environmental, health and economic impacts of disposable versus reusable cloth diapers. A summary of the findings has been provided.

"As a result of our analysis, we found that disposable diapers offer distinguishable health and economic advantages over their reusable counterparts. In particular, they offer better protection against diaper dermatitis, while also decreasing the potential spread of infection in day care settings. These benefits are achieved at a lower weekly cost compared to cloth diapers. In terms of environmental considerations, neither is clearly superior.

"Disposable diaper manufacture and use consumes about seven times the raw material of cloth diapers and results in the generation of over 90 times the postconsumer solid waste.

"Reusable diaper manufacture and use generates 50% more process solid waste ... than disposable diapers.

"Reusable diaper manufacture and use consume over three times more non-renewable energy resources ... and just over four times more renewable energy resources.

"Reusable diaper manufacture and use consumes over six times more water and releases nearly 10 times higher levels of total water pollutants.

"Reusable diaper manufacture and use results in emissions of over nine times higher levels of total air pollution.

"...In conclusion, the specific health, environmental and economic advantages of disposable diaper products appear to outweigh the more limited advantages of the reusable diaper products." A need has developed, on both sides of the issue, for accurate information and governmental controls over what claims can and cannot be made. Much confusion abounds in the general public over "biodegradable" and -environmentally friendly" claims and the ill-informed consumer, eager to do his part to help the environment, has been led astray by the marketing ploys of some companies. Here's a look at some of the resultant actions.

On the West Coast four supermarkets have appointed a private company, Scientific Certification Systems, Sacramento, CA, to evaluate the environmental friendliness of consumer goods. According to the April 25 issue of Chemicalweek, the program will "award deserving [consumer goods] a 'Green Cross Seal of Approval."'

The plan, however, is not without its drawbacks. Since firms must pay for consideration, the Green Cross may benefit publicity-seekers instead of the truly benign, critics charge. Also, black-or-white standards oversimplify the web of trade-offs involved in selecting the most environmentally sound consumer goods.

'The program itself may fail to guide the consumer,' says Barry Cutler, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection....'a certification seal alone, without explanation, has no more significance for the consumer than manufacturers' 'environmentally friendly' claims."'

Another environmental seal of approval was also introduced by Earth Day organizer Dennis Hayes. According to Advertising Age (June 11), "Mr. Hayes, chairman-ceo of Green Seal, a non-profit organization supported by leaders of major environmental and consumer interest groups ... will outline the program's criteria and standards." The "Green Seal" will be awarded to products in four different categories to be evaluated and tested by Hayes' organization.

The Green Seal program "won't include products where there might be confusion with existing government programs ... will make the criteria public .... and will charge reasonable fees scaled to a company's ability to pay."'

However, some state officials see problems with the Green Seal program. "'Green Seal is uniformly a bad idea,' said Texas assistant attorney general Stephen Gardner. 'The problem is we need definitions and clarity. There is no definition or meaning established for green claims.'

'Green Seal will open the door for conflict and deception even though they are well-intentioned,' said Andrea Levine, New York assistant attorney general."

As the outcry for environmental explanations spread, the Federal Trade Commission stepped in. According to Peter Mayberry in the Capital Comments column of Nonwovens Industry (May 1990), "The FTC will be ... looking into the advertising claims of the green' or environmentally friendly' products that have recently reached the market. The FTC will be working on the issue with a task force from the National Association of Attorneys General and is expected to ask a number of companies to substantiate their advertising claims.

"The FTC will be scrutinizing the increasing number of green claims' of products advertised as being biodegradable,' photodegradable,' 'recyclable' or otherwise environmentally friendly.'...The government's law enforcement role in consumer protection should be straightforward: Firms that market their products honestly and fairly should be able to compete without unnecessary government interference. But firms that market products using unfair or deceptive claims or practices should anticipate 'swift corrective action."'

Chairperson Janet Steiger of the FTC is working on this issue with Attorneys General from California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

In another somewhat related development, lawsuits have been filed by seven states contending that Mobil Chemical, New York, "exploited popular misconceptions by making environmental claims for Hefty trash bags that it knew were false." The suits allege that Mobil claimed that Hefty bags were degradable to obtain a marketing advantage, even though documents show company officials knew the bags wouldn't break down in landfills or help reduce solid waste. Mobil has denied the allegations and will fight the lawsuits. While the battle continues to wage in the papers and magazines among the environmental groups and disposable diaper proponents, industry is quietly working on some solutions of its own to solve the problem. Here are some examples of what's happening in a variety of arenas; plausible technology ideas and product suggestions still a little farther down the R&D line are developing and a technological breakthrough may be just around the corner.

The story that made the biggest news in recent months was a patent received by IGI Inc., Vineland, NJ, for its biodegradable diaper. The diaper, still in very early development stages, features biodegradable enhancer granules that release enzymes to degrade the diaper material; the enzymes are reportedly activated when they come in contact with moisture. The Micro Vesicular Systems group of IGI will manufacture the "Ultrasponge" superabsorbers that begin deterioration within two days. IGI will not make the actual diaper, however; it will license the technology to diaper producers.

Warner Lambert also introduced what it claims is a biodegradable plastic that is based on a starch from corn, rice, wheat or potatoes. This "bio-plastic starch" is said to be 90-95% starch and is still in the research phase. Early targets are hard molded or shaped plastics, although diapers have not been ruled out as a potential end use.

A bacteria-based degradable plastic is also in development stages at the University of Lowell, MA. According to Parenting magazine, "polymers produced by bacteria (much in the way silk is produced by silkworms) are made into plastics, which in turn can be broken down by other bacteria in a landfill." The new technology is said to be well advanced and should be available within the next few years.

In the equipment arena, a machine for recycling the smoke generated from the exhaust stacks of tenter frames and ovens has been introduced by High Tech International, New Bedford, MA. The High Tech Internal Smoke & Energy Recycler For Textile Ovens and Dryers permits the reuse of smoke that would otherwise be exhausted into the atmosphere. The equipment eliminates pollutants freed from the fibers and resin when heated at high temperatures, making the smoke and heat reusable. In addition, the energy required to eliminate the pollutants by incineration is also totally recycled.

In other incinerator news, an innovative high-tech laser system has been developed by physicist Eric Cheetham and his company Phoenix Environmental Limited, Lycoming, PA. According to the March 1990 issue of Pennsylvania Township News, the laser can turn toxic incinerator ash into a harmless rock. "The Laser Amplified Material Processing Systems (LAMPS), which Cheetham had developed through a decade of research, uses lasers to superheat ash from toxic and solid waste incinerators to between 5000 and 10,000 F and convert it into a harmless rock-like material that may be used in building homes or for road construction.

"Carbon dioxide ... and an environmentally clean rocklike material that can be safely placed in a landfill are the harmless end products."

Moving on to recycling, Marcal Paper Mills, Elmwood Park, NJ, is active in recycling old magazines into paper towels and tissues. The company accepts 300 tons a month of magazines, newspaper inserts and junk mail. It has a 500 ton capacity and hopes to expand to 8000 tons monthly by 1994. The program also benefits area companies by greatly reducing their trash disposal costs.

Another company, Alpha Paper Recycling Corp., Jersey City, NJ, was present at Earth Day in New York City touting its recycling avenues. Alpha buys paper waste of all types-typing paper, computer printouts, copier paper, letterhead, bond, reports, files and forms-and recycles them into paper products for resale.

On the machinery end, PresGIas Corp., Troy MI, has introduced a state-of-the-art fiber recycling unit that uses an air laid process to transform discarded fiber components into various kinds of nonwoven webbing. The facility has reportedly successfully processed reclaimed textiles, glass, polyester, nylon and wood fibers into various kinds of sound-absorption webbing for applications in insulation and interior trim panels for automobiles, trucks and off-highway equipment. And there you have it, a brief wrap up of some of what's been happening as the disposability saga rolls on. A growing awareness of the problem, a host of ideas and the possibility of new technology innovations all reflect what's been happening on the environmental front.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions, however. Will biodegradables ever be the answer? Or will the composting craze catch on? Will recycling revenues rise? Or will incinerators incite more support? Is education the answer? Or will cloth conquer? Stay tuned for answers to these and more disposability questions in future issues of Nonwovens Industry. The Disposability Conference: A Commentary A feeling of community prevailed as the doors closed on INDA's second Disposing of the Disposables conference last month. The special two-day meeting, held June 4-5 in Baltimore, MD, in conjunction with INDA-TEC '90, was certainly a successful conclave for an industry working together to solve a common problem.

The meeting was well attended, with almost 150 people on hand. Individual talks were also well attended, illustrating the seriousness with which the industry is approaching this vital issue. Likewise, the quality of attendance was also extremely high in caliber. It was a bit unusual to see the people in charge of such leading nonwovens producers as Veratec, Scott Nonwovens, Hoechst, Fiberweb NA, Chicopee and DuPont sitting through two days of talks just to learn of the latest in the battle of the baby diapers. The roll goods companies were most conspicuous, but equipment manufacturers and raw materials suppliers were also present to see what they could do to help in the overall fight for environmental equality.

While this gathering may not have brought with it the energy and substantial news developments of the first INDA-sponsored disposability meeting last fall in Washington, D.C., it did serve the vital function of keeping the industry abreast of the status quo of the disposability issue, what individual companies are doing and the governmental and environmental agency problems or concessions. Just the discussion by a DuPont environmental executive outlining the company's extensive environmental programs and awareness was worth the price of admission for many. The overall feeling was one of unity and a willingness to work together to solve the disposability dilemma. Its a refreshing change from the prevailing secrecy that envelopes the nonwovens industry in most other areas.

Individual talks centered on what the big names are doing-the research taking place by DuPont, what the regulatory concerns are, where biodegradability fits, or doesn't fit, into the overall scheme of disposability-as well as talks on pertinent issues ranging from recycling to composting to incineration. The gamut of problems and possible solutions was covered, of course, and hopefully something said in one of the talks sparked an idea in someone's mind to go one step further in the quest for answers.

The primary realization may have been-unlike at last year's conference- that by now everyone recognizes that there is a problem and knows the issues. It is fairly common knowledge within the nonwovens industry by now that nothing degrades in landfills and that "biodegradable" does not necessarily mean biodegradable. The time has come to move on.

The nonwovens and disposables industries themselves are now well-informed; it's now time to concentrate on informing the American public. The time has also come to step up the technology reserve put aside for problems such as these and begin working more diligently on actual answers to the problem. Education is the first step; using the information provided to do more comes next.

The industry is tentatively scheduled to meet again on this issue in the fall of 1991; by then, hopefully we will have gone beyond simple awareness to the foundation of the solution.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Rodman Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry's Disposing of the Disposables conference in June, 1990; environmental issues facing the nonwovens and disposable products industries
Author:Noonan, Ellen
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Previous Article:A GRAB bag of information.
Next Article:INDA-TEC '90.

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