Disposable nappy recycling in the UK

Filed in Blog by on September 23, 2009 16 Comments
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Recycling nappies to make roof tiles!

Recycling nappies to make roof tiles!

It’s no surprise that a recent survey showed 95% of parents wanted disposable nappy recycling as part of their standard household kerbside collection.

It seems guilt runs high among parents when it comes to ditching disposables in the landfill; with 93% of parents feeling unease when throwing nappies in the bin.

And yes, we could all use washable nappies like the good old days, but we live in an era of convenience and busy schedules which doesn’t always involve soaking buckets and a line full of freshly washed nappies.

More than three billion nappies are thrown away every year in the UK, so it’s a huge problem in terms of waste. Up until now the only answer has been to landfill or incinerate them.

However, thanks to a company called Knowaste Ltd, the UK’s first nappy recycling plant is opening in Birmingham 2010!

I’ve been having a yarn with the Bill Knoupe – Knowaste’s Director – who tells me that the plant will be able to recycle approximately 36,000 tonnes of nappies and other absorbent hygiene products including bedliners, and incontinence products.

Knowaste Ltd have established a recycling process that sanitises every nappy and enables 98% of the disposable nappy to be removed from the waste stream.  And if you’re wondering what happens to the plastic, it can be recycled into a variety of products including plastic cladding, bicycle helmets and roof tiles. Where there’s muck there’s brass!

The roof tiles are currently available through Knowaste’s latest venture – SmallPlanet Building Products. The plastic is currently sourced in Belgium, but once the Birmingham plant is up and running, Knowaste hope to reduce their carbon footprint by recycling and manufacturing all the tiles in Britain.

Bill was quick to tell me that the recycled roofing tiles are UV resistant, cheap to buy and quick and easy to install.

The great news is that Knowaste are working with Local Authorities to get kerbside collection of disposable nappies up and running. They are currently running trials in Birmingham and hope to expand collections across the UK.

I’m so excited about sharing this story with you as many parents feel such guilt about using disposable nappies. Let’s hope it takes off soon and we can’t start turning our ‘waste’ (boom boom) into a valuable resource.


About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (16)

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  1. Chris says:

    For those who live in Scotland, Waste Aware Scotland have produced a fantastic section on using real nappies. It has everything you need to know to start using real nappies as well as details of support networks, advisers and retailers.


    Hope this helps folks.


  2. flippaxxx says:

    It’s good to see Birmingham at the forefront of recycling for a change!

    Which reminds me – you may remember back when you did the pledge & win competition one of my pledges was to contact my Council (Birmingham) to get recycling facilities for our apartment block. Several emails and phonecalls later, I got back from holiday last week to find a letter confirming that we now have recycling wheelie bins in the refuse stores! Hurrah :o)

    It took a good 6 months, but to be honest, 6 months in Council terms isn’t really that bad!!!

  3. John Costigane says:

    Hi Mrs Green,

    Disposable nappies have been a sticking point for young families aiming at waste reduction. An alternative to their landfill/EfW, with the proposed recycling, is most welcome. As usual the way to deal with waste is to make it a resource. Zero Waste is simply ending the throwaway attitude, which has proved so costly to the environment and to councils finances, due to rising landfill charges.

  4. Poppy says:

    What a brilliant idea and so, so needed! And not too far away either, so hopefuly our local councils will investigate being part of this. 😀

  5. Alison Kerr says:

    This sounds a great idea. I’m a little dubious about the energy cost of shipping the nappies to the recycling site, but certainly for the Birmingham area it sounds wonderful. Maybe they’ll be able to expand to different areas.

  6. LJayne says:

    This sounds like a really good idea and even if there are downsides to it initially – nappy miles lol – it should be encouraged. I remember watching a programme on how they do this in Holland and thinking “if they can do it, we ought to be able to”. I like the idea of the roof tiles as well. I’m always looking for things like those fleeces made out of recycled plastic bottles and the like.

    I wonder how many nappies 36,000 tonnes actually is………………… but one has to start somewhere.

    I use cloth nappies, have done for all 3 of mine, and it really isn’t a huge task. I’m the laziest person I know and I still manage it! I wish we could get over this image of it being huge amounts of boiling and soaking and everything else. I dry pail so there are no buckets of fetid water to be knocked over. My nappies wash on 60 at most and because I have enough nappies – still cheaper than 6 months disposables! – I only need to do one nappy wash every 5 days or so. There are very few people who couldn’t fit this into their lifestyle if only they actually tried. Or, like a working friend of mine, use a nappy service and cut out the washing altogether.

    Sorry, will get off my hobby horse now lol. Great idea. And thumbs up for Birmingham (where I’m from and often the brunt of many many jokes!)

  7. Sarah says:

    To be brutally honest, while this is a great idea it’s still a sticking plaster on a wound isn’t it? Should we not be thinking about the way these things are manufactured and shipped in the first place? How much waste is produced to make disposable nappies, how much fuel is being used to transport them both to the shops and now to this new recycling centre?

    All credit to you Mrs Green for bigging up the recycling aspect and I’m really glad that there is a way to deal with this landfill monster, but we shouldn’t have to be dealing with it. We should be tackling the problem before it starts. This is saying that disposable, throw away nappies are here to stay, with their toxic chemicals and their reliance on plastic etc, this is saying we don’t expect anyone to change, anyone to make a tiny effort to avoid all that for our children. Don’t worry, you can still have your convenience and we’ll deal with the waste for you. This is not addressing the issue at the root.

    Cloth nappies are easy with modern washing machines and modern designs, easy to fit into a working life. You bung them in a bucket or straight into the machine and just turn it on when there’s enough. Throw poo down the loo, like you should with a disposable anyway, and it’s all done. If you need to top up a load, add some flannels, wash cloths or muslins and the amount a baby gets through you’ll have a machine load in no time. If you’re dry-pailing or no soaking then a pre-rinse with cold water helps, but really, it’s no more difficult than adding powder/soap nuts and pressing a button.

    Sorry for the rant but this makes me angry – we are being asked to invest our dwindling resources in patching up something that could be solved at source with a little personal effort.

    I’ll slope off now shall I?

  8. Mrs Green says:

    @Chris: Hello Chris, thanks for the link to reusable nappies in Scotland; it’s a good link 🙂 Campaigns that help raise awareness on real nappies are fabulous.

    @flippaxxx: Hi Flippa; great to see you again and thanks for sharing your lovely update. You’ve done brilliantly with your council – well done! I hope you feel proud of your work.

    @John Costigane: Hi John, I agree – viewing ‘waste’ as a resource has to be the way forward; that’s how Mother Nature teaches us 😉

    @Poppy: Hi Poppy, I have been told that Malvern might be next; so it’s getting closer.

    @Alison Kerr: Hi Alison, well hopefully the shipping costs will reduce. Bill certainly wants the ‘made in Britain’ mark on his roof tiles and wants the plastic sourced in the UK too. Plans are for expansion; but obviously it’s one step at a time for now …

    @LJayne: Hi Lesley; you’re right – closing the loop on our recycling is a much needed step. I try to remember that when I buy things; it’s great to recycle but we have to create demand for recycled products and I don’t always remember this myself.
    I do agree with you about the reusable nappies; many people I know fit them into their lifestyle and its not so long ago that there was no choice! I think people have become accustomed to the ‘convenience’ of throwing things away and there is a lot of advertising pumped into disposable nappies, so it’s hard to get people to change.

    @Sarah: Hi Sarah, thanks for your ‘rant’ I really hear you on this and your thoughts echo many of mine about **all** aspects of recycling. Dealing with waste by recycling is isn’t getting to the root of the issue, but I’m wondering how we get to the root of the issue now.
    Can we ever get back to ‘living off the land’, taking only that which we need, making do and mending, turning all our waste at home into a resource?
    I don’t think we can; we’ve all become too accustomed to the conveniences of modern life and the sad truth is, I think most people just don’t care…
    It’s tough being green 😉

  9. Layla says:

    Hmm, I’m dubious about this plan to ‘recycle’ nappies too.. Firstly, some mamas say their babies got rashes or such from Pampers (!) and this was avoided when using cloth. (A mama said she trashed a pack of Pampers unused for this reason – hadn’t realized at the time she could at least donate it to charity!)

    Secondly, I wonder about the chemicals used or ‘produced’ (as by-product) in the process of ‘recycling’ too.. It would be interesting to see any studies or reports..
    Also, like pointed out above, the use of resources etc may be a problem..
    So, if I ever get a baby (or a few), I’ll stick to cloth and ‘no nappies’ (from birth) as much as possible..

    Washing is better for many areas, except perhaps in areas of drought or slipping terraine in hills (we have one hill here that is slowly ‘slipping down’ from modern houses using too much water).
    I do see ‘disposables’ as possibly of use here, ideally they’d be 100% biodegradable and compostable, made of natural materials.
    Compostable/flushable nappies exist, although I’m not so sure how ‘eco’ or really biodegradable they really are, some non-natural ingredients seem to be used too..

    For many ‘mainstream’ people, such a service could or could not be helpful. If compared to a laundry nappy service, it presents about the same amount of ‘hassle’ (collecting and putting on kerbside) and as far as I know plastics smell worse! With a laundry nappy service you keep the nappies though, and don’t need to buy new ones.. Not sure how the price turns out, ideally laundering would be cheaper?
    (In Slovenia, if you buy new cloth nappies it can be about the same as disposable, used are cheaper, and for 2nd kid and all the rest, it’s cheaper of course – ‘free nappies’!)

  10. Mrs Green says:

    @Layla: Hi Layla, I appreciate your concerns. I agree with much of what you say, but I do feel that for the masses, who WON’T switch to cloth, nappy recycling is a positive step. Let’s see what happens! I think we really do need a push on viewing our waste as a resource as much as possible now.

  11. I’m pleased to see that news of our plant opening in Birmingham next year has generated so much interest. Mrs Green has done a great job replying to your individual comments but I felt compelled to respond on behalf of Knowaste.

    A big thank you to those who are supportive of what we are trying to achieve. We understand that opening one nappy recycling plant in the UK isn’t going to fully solve the problem of nappy waste, but as Lesley Jayne says, you have to start somewhere… And that is very much where we are coming from. For those parents that choose not to use cloth nappies (and we aren’t opposed to those that do) and not forgetting the hospitals and care homes in the UK that have to deal with tonnes of adult incontinence waste products, we want to be seen as a viable solution.

    36,000 tonnes may only make a small dent in the total amount of nappy and adult incontinence product waste produced in the UK each year, but over time, we plan to make further investments in the UK market and open more plants across the country, therefore increasing our capability of recycling more waste. We will grow as the market dictates.

    Fundamental to our business and our business model – as many of you rightly observe – is to treat waste as a resource. This is why we have launched a new venture in the form of SmallPlanet Building Products Ltd, which will manufacture innovative global roofing solutions made from recycled plastic. Initially, this recycled plastic will come from a variety of sources but the ultimate aim is to use the plastic recyclates produced at the UK’s first Knowaste nappy recycling plant scheduled to open early in 2010 in Birmingham. What’s more, in the longer term we plan to generate green energy from the bio mass treatment of the sludge at our Birmingham plant. This will create a methane gas and can be sold back to the Grid.

    One final point in response to comments that the Knowaste process is not the answer to nappy recycling. In the UK, the need to recycle more and divert waste from landfill is high on the political and local government agenda. Consequently we have already had a phenomenal response to our recycling system for nappies from waste collection companies, local authorities and parents who want to know how they can contribute to the reduction of landfill. We alone can not solve the problem, but we can certainly do our bit.

  12. Mrs Green says:

    Lynette, thank you for coming to the site to answer some of the questions raised by our readers. Many of our readers are pro real nappies, but we are not privy to all the information – as you point out, you are currently collecting from hospitals and care homes as well where, for reasons of hygiene, disposable products are the only choice.

    I wish you well with the launch of the plant in Birmingham next year and please do keep us updated with any progress.

  13. Hazera Forth says:

    I added my tuppence about the debate between disposable versus cloth nappies on the Facebook page for Knowaste….

    I just want to balance the debate a little. Terry cloths and disposable nappies still have to be manufactured. There will always be an environment impact on whichever method is chosen. Cotton still has to be grown in fields – fields which were once forests, which in itself has an environmental cost. It still needs processing, and weaving and transporting and most as I recall are still packaged for the shop floor in plastics. They also have to be washed – which has an enivornmental cost in terms of the power needed for a washing machine – regardless of whether you put them in with other clothes. And even if hand washing, we still need to use hot water which has a financial and environmental impact. Terry cloths don’t contribute to landfill but that doesn’t mean they make zero or no contribution to our carbon footprint or problems to the planet. I think NoWaste is at least trying to recycle as much as is possible and reducing landfill is certainly worth doing. I am very happy to read that adult disposables may also be recycled in this way. This is really good news.

    The one thing that annoys me is that people who use cloth nappies seem to have this holier than thou attitude about cloth nappies being totally and utterly sinless – but when you look at it, that’s not really the case. Most of it is machine harvested, therefore, needing some kind of fuel? Does anyone know what kind? I don’t, but I wonder if it’s completely and totally carbon neutral?

    Also, how many places in the UK grows cotton in large quantities? Not sure but I am willing to bet that most cotton has to be imported – again, not very carbon neutral. I am sure the same is true for disposables.

    Some other facts for you:

    Some cotton is genetically modified. And although this bears no problem for your little ones, what about the impact on native insects that pollinate cotton or other cotton species?

    Although cotton is drought tolerant, it still needs water and in some areas of the world over-irrigation has led to desertification.

    Economically, we rely on mostly China and India for cotton – countries we pay peanuts for this valuable resource.

    This article should make interesting reading fo you. It’s study on the environmental impact of cottong production and trade in Pakistan.


    Need I go on?

  14. Mrs Green says:

    @Hazera Forth: Hello Hazera, welcome to the site and thanks for adding your thoughts. You are right in saying that there is an environmental impact no matter which method you chose.

    It’s a shame you feel that people who use cloth nappies seem to have this holier than thou attitude. I’ve not personally found that (and I didn’t use washable nappies until LMG was virtually toilet trained; I was a bit behind the eco times!) I’ve found people to be very non judgemental and willing to help others find the right nappy system – I guess alot of them are passionate about what they do and that can sometimes be misinterpreted.

    Thanks for joining in and sharing all the information you have discovered about washables vs disposables 🙂

  15. Anne says:

    Thanks Mrs Green for raising the issue and you really seem to have created a stir on both sides of the fence.

    I sit firmly on the side of cloth over disposable and am of the opinion that recycling disposables does not get to the root of the problem. The fact is that marketing in less than a generation has moved the norm from cloth to disposable – surely a similar investment can redress the balance a little now that we are way beyond squares and pins?

    Like Hazera I am very concerned about cotton production – and not just its environmental impact but also the human cost in terms of poison, debt and suicide.

    I am beginning to favour the use of bamboo as a fabric – it is great for nappies – and as a crop is marvellous – much less water than cotton, no pesticides and the crop yield is fantastic. The downside (there always is one!) is in the manufacture of the fabric. The process requires a lot of toxic chemicals to produce a fabric like viscose (the US actually call it Rayon – the name for viscose on that side of the pond) – and as yet the big manufacturers in places like China are reticent in talking about their process – there is a “closed loop” process which is OK by the way – but expensive to implement.

    We all need to realise that we have a footprint on the planet and even our children use up a lot of its resources – but we need to consider how to lighten our footsteps a little these days!

  16. Mrs Green says:

    @Anne: Hi Anne, welcome to the site and for sharing your thoughts. I like the idea of redressing the idea of the ‘norm’ back to washables. It’s a bit like whether its fashionable to put babies to sleep on their backs or fronts 😉
    Thanks for sharing the info on Bamboo. I like bamboo; it’s wonderfully soft and absorbent, but I don’t find it to be terribly long lasting. Also I worry that it is a panda’s natural diet and would like to know more about cropping it.
    Like you say, we need to weigh up all sides of the argument and do our best to reduce our impact on the environment as much as we can.

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