Creating sustainable value from used nappies

27 November 2019

Disposable nappies, or diapers, are a hygienic time-saver - but one with an environmental impact. The BBI JU EMBRACED project has developed collection and recycling systems that turn used nappies and similar products into profitable new materials for more sustainable use.

BBI JU EMBRACED project: Creating sustainable value from used nappies

According to figures from the nappy and absorbent hygienic product (AHP) industries, 30 million tonnes of their products end up in the world’s landfills or incinerators each year. Europe accounts for 8.5 million tonnes alone, equivalent to almost 30 landfills every year.

The EMBRACED project, funded by the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU), a public-private partnership between the EU and the industry, has developed a value chain that transforms used diapers into high-value materials suitable for new goods. The 13-partner project – a mix of research organisations, an NGO and businesses – has also pioneered smart public collection bins to pre-sort nappies for processing.

Both processes support a more circular, low-waste economy, reduce landfill and limit greenhouse gas emissions. ‘The EMBRACED biorefinery transforms used AHP into high-value secondary raw materials, closing the loop of this product category,’ says project coordinator Marcello Somma, head of R&D and business development at FaterSMART, part of the FATER hygiene-product manufacturing group, a joint venture between Procter & Gamble and the Angelini Group.

High-tech simplicity

AHP are mainly composed of natural fibre-based cellulose, polyolefin plastics and superabsorbent polymer. These valuable materials are in demand for diverse products, from packaging and bottle caps to new AHP such as sanitary towels or absorbent mats for medical treatment.

EMBRACED has built a full-scale demonstration plant – its biorefinery – that breaks down used nappies and other AHP into their component parts. First, the products are opened up and sterilised using steam in a rotating vessel, known as an autoclave. Another part of the refinery then gently dries the sterilised waste. In the final stage, mechanical and optical separators turn the waste into its components ready for recycling.

In addition, the plant recovers chemicals from human waste for use in fertilizers and saves a processing by-product, syngas, for industrial processes. Although the process sounds simple, there are 130 patents covering the technology, according to Somma. ‘No operator touches the diaper. The process is fully automated.’

Smart value chain

The plant, based in Treviso in Italy, can process up to 10 000 tonnes of used products every year. It is an upgraded version of a pilot plant built by FaterSMART and other partners in an earlier EU-funded project, RECALL.

Treviso has a dedicated municipal nappy collection, which supplied RECALL with nappies free from other waste for good-quality end products. As not all municipalities have this service, EMBRACED came up with a solution. ‘We developed smart bins to prove that the recycling could work without separate collection,’ explains Somma.

An accompanying phone app locates and opens the nearest bin, which remains firmly locked the rest of the time to keep the nappies and smells inside. A trial of 12 bins in two densely populated districts in Amsterdam in the Netherlands has been a success. ’80 % of people who used the app once used it constantly afterwards,’ Somma says.

By the end of 2020, the Amsterdam waste operator, AEB, will build its own processing facility using EMBRACED technology for even greener recycling, he adds. More bins are also due to be installed in the city. Other waste operators and manufacturers in Europe and Asia have expressed interested in the recycling plant technology and output raw materials, while the smart bins will be fully commercialised by the end of 2019.

Although it is too early to assess the potential for regional growth and jobs, Somma says that there are already 1 000 processing jobs at the plant in Italy and that the project safeguards existing manufacturing jobs by making nappies more sustainable.

‘We are creating a new value chain based on smart, affordable collection, treatment and valorisation,’ Somma concludes. ‘EU funding has been critically important.’

This project was funded by BBI JU, a EUR 3.7 billion public-private partnership between the EU and the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC).

Source: European Commission, Research and Innovation Information Centre