Unforeseen, Unintended Consequences

Untold Stories of Diapers (Video 8 minutes)

Disposable Diapers Deep in Doo-Doo

Disposable diapers are one of the hardest items to recycle. Almost all go to landfill. How did we wind up in this mess?

How It Began

In the summer of 1961, I was a young junior engineer for Union Carbide Polymers Division. Proctor & Gamble was a major customer.

One evening about quitting time, my boss and I were bantering about the home run kings, Maris and Mantle of the New York Yankees, when a desperate voice from P&G phoned; never caught the name. Could we deliver in two weeks a sample shipment of taffeta embossed white polyethylene film? It was to be the outer liner of a disposable baby diaper. Taffeta embossing makes plastic film feel like cloth.

My boss replies, “Maybe one of our engineers can do something for you.” Handing over the phone, he says to me, “Wanna talk to this guy? This crap is never going anyplace!”

The voice said to phone a P&G engineer in the morning for technical specs. After the call I learned my situation – deep doo-doo. Having never made a film like this, we had no equipment or tooling to quickly set up for it. Crucially, no embossing roll was close to the desired taffeta pattern, and a new one from Italy had a minimum lead time of 16 weeks. P&G insisted on taffeta film in two weeks for a scheduled a test market. This would take some development work. No big deal said my boss; just do a chewing gum and bailing wire set up. This stink will blow over. This was just a test challenge for a junior engineer.

Re-examining all embossing rolls in the machine shop turned up nothing. Walt Templeton, a veteran machinist, inquired about my plight. “Simple kid. Shave down an old roll and use a knurling tool on it, like making a knurled knob.” I would have never thought of that. Walt prepped a temporary roll in one day.

To make a long story short, ten days and a couple of all-nighters later we choked out a few sample rolls of film for P&G. The set up looked like a junior high shop project, but it worked. My engineering file drawer was labeled, “K-Wrap,” a spoof on Glad-Wrap.

A couple of weeks later, P&G wanted a bigger sample order for a test market; a few weeks after that, a sample order three times as big. Larger quantities on the rickety set up stressed both operators and the engineer. About three months into this, surprise! P&G said that sales of disposable diapers under the brand Pampers were ready to launch. How soon could we scale up? I was removed from the project. Senior engineers took over.

Convenience Has Consequences

When Pampers launched my wife and I had babies in diapers. We tried a few sample Pampers, but none of our babies were routinely diapered in them. We used cloth ones, often hand washed. When our parents babysat our tots, they diapered them in old, cut up flour sacks, then commonly used in rural areas. And going back to when any kind of cloth was scarce, how were incontinent infants handled? Perhaps that’s why old paintings of infants often show them naked. Natural biodegradation disposed of their discharges. Sanitation was poor, but so what? Nobody was overly concerned.

In the trial Pampers, paper was designed to dissolve in water. Separate the paper from the liner over a toilet, drop the paper in to soak a while; then flush. Drop liner in the trash. Yuck. Forget that! Parents threw the whole stinking glob in a garbage can, wrapped to confine the smell. They still do. Saves time and contact with goo. That we’ll pay for.

Fifty-seven years later, almost 100 percent of U.S. babies luxuriate in disposable diapers. Almost all go to landfill. If they actually go to a sewage plant they can plug it up, but the bigger source of sewage jams is baby wipes, introduced about the same time.

By innovating an industry that did not exist before, P&G scored a whomping success by conventional business logic. By environmental logic, it stinks, but in 1961, no one including me foresaw this. Today, disposable diapers are the third largest contributor to landfills, anywhere from 1.5 to 4.0%. There, away from oxygen, nothing biodegrades quickly, but just think of all the extra power we generate from landfill methane!

Globally, the disposable baby diaper market is expanding rapidly, $49 billion now; $64 billion by the early 2020s. In the U.S., disposable baby diapers in great variety are a mature market. U.S. growth is in adult diapers, expected to hit $14 billion by 2021, as baby boomers losing it want to look like they’ve still got it. Shelf space for adult incontinence already almost equals that for baby diapers. (A few generations ago the elderly dared not stray far from a commode or a discreetly hidden chamber pot.)

Fluff pulp paper used in diapers is a boon to the paper industry. Its annual growth rate of 3% is expected to substantially offset a slow decline in paper used for printing.

Landfills are a snooze-inducing issue in the United States, where trash disposal is more disciplined than in a place like Bangladesh. There about 2/3 of all garbage is still tossed along the roads. However, in cities like Dhaka, Bangladeshis are buying heavily marketed disposable diapers. Their bulk adds to already considerable sanitation problems. Low and wet, Bangladeshi landfills leak effluents too. (Most plastics going into the ocean come from places like Bangladesh, where consumption is rising while disposal is poorly contained.)

Containing Our Crap

Yes, companies are working this issue. One is Baby Tooshy. Its site emphasizes cloth diapers saving money, tough to sell vs. the perceived value of conveniently chucking yuck. Baby Tooshy is engineering more environmentally benign diapers: Degradable hemp diapers. Antimicrobial bamboo diaper inserts. Waterproof paper liners. These are offered on Amazon, but sales are not going viral.

What broader problem does Baby Tooshy address? Disposal of human and maybe animal effluent from a concentrated area. The task of disposal is only one step in sanitary recycling of said effluents – cycling from food to poop to soil to food again.  Disposal is an ancient problem. When not concentrated, nature recycles our effluents without us having to think about it, but we have been piling it beyond nature’s capacity for a long time. Archeological digs often pry up the refuse heaps of ancient people. When dung piled high, settlements had to move.

When poop is dispersed, like droppings in a field, nature quickly recycles it, no added energy required. But concentrate poop in one place and nature takes longer to break it down. From personal experience, a twenty-foot tall pile of turkey droppings is a source of pollution for years. Natural recycling uses no fuel energy, but few of us live where we can openly poop in the woods, so we concentrate our bodily effluents. In densely populated towns and cities, we power artificial recycling. About 2% of all U.S. generated electricity runs sewage plants. Then we burn more energy for our own convenience in the diapering step, and entrepreneurs make money devising “solutions.”

This mindset motivates an upward cycle in energy use – a growth spiral. No matter how well intentioned, a profit-making venture solves a problem as a project to make money. Success is customer sales. Baby Tooshy at least intervenes in this cycle by cutting a fraction of the energy used at the disposal step. Other companies aspire to be environmentally responsible, so what more can be done?

Different Values

Suppose we think systemically. How would we recycle human waste to maintain good sanitation while using much less energy to do it? At the disposal step reusable hemp diapers might be a good start; I don’t know. To save water we could revert to soaking soiled diapers in a pail. We could compost the stuff on site and make our own soil nutrient. A halfway house is small sewage treatment systems, now being built. They consume less energy but are not popular. Most sales are for cost reduction, not environmental benefit. Disciplined exclusion of some of the gunk that goes into sewage would additionally reduce the energy and complexity of purifying sewage. That’s what nature does. If effluent is not laden with toxins, filtration through soil and plant roots will convert poo water into drinking water without us thinking about it, and for free.

All these ideas and more have been tried. But all – even a “green” diaper – are a tough sell in a culture fixated on transactional values; therefore short-term biased, blind to bigger systems effects, and risk averse (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). Unfortunately, human population density is now too great for poop-in-the-woods options. We have to use energy to dispose of effluents that nature once did for us, almost for free. We can only devise systems to minimize the resources needed to do nature’s job.

However, the public wants energy-powered disposal to be as cheap as possible, if not free. Very few citizens commenting on any increase in sewage fees favor higher fees, but most baby-blessed households spend more per year on disposable diapers than on sewage bills. That is, they willingly pay for convenience, but grudgingly pay for the substitutes for nature’s services.

Changing this perception is no small change in cultural values – changes in how we fundamentally think. A world based on markets tends to truncate thinking at points of sale – buy, use, discard, forget. Just writing this reminded me that thinking about natural cycles pushes us to switch logic systems in the brain. If we’re going to sustain our ecology, we first have to sustain a different logic pattern within us.

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