Diaper Pollution: Who to Blame?

By Mukhtar Ahmad Farooqi 

POLLUTION being a global problem has a direct impact on climate change and environmental sustainability. We all are  aware of different forms of pollution like air, water, noise , plastic that are widely debated across different platforms. However, a type of plastic pollution namely disposable baby diapers has become a key source of environmental pollution is often overlooked by activists.

“Disposable Nappy” was officially created and patented for the first time in 1948 and has since then become an easy solution for parents. Synthetic diapers began being produced in the 1960s and gained popularity with the passage of time. They are a billion dollar industry.

They may seem more convenient but their environmental impact is unimaginable because almost  90% of nappies are dumped into landfills, covered and not exposed to sun or air at all. Disposable diapers are made from synthetic materials(non recyclable polyethylene plastic) which are non biodegradable in nature. This is why they’re an environmental hazard. Besides accumulation of waste, disposable diapers contain many harmful substances. Some of the toxic substances present in them and their effect on living beings are:

  1. Tributyltin (TBT) – It is a biocide which is used to prevent the growth of bacteria but is poisonous to marine life as well as humans. It reduces fertility,  and damages other organs. TBT can be fatal if inhaled and it doesn’t degrade. TBT remains in our ecosystem and is slowly entering our food chain thereby  can have disastrous future consequences.
  2. Dioxins – A class of persistent organic pollutants. The bleaching process used on diaper material creates dioxins as a by-product. They’re carcinogenic and linked to long-term health problems. Dioxins are highly toxic, according to the EPA.
  3. Adhesives, synthetic dyes, and perfumes –  Adhesives are used to hold the entire diaper together. Synthetic dyes are used to print the cute images found on diapers, as well as the colored straps and the convenient strip telling you whether the baby needs to be changed. Diapers use perfumes to hide odors. Chemicals used in these processes add to the list.
  4. Sodium polyacrylate –This chemical is known as waterlock, and is added to the inner pad of a disposable to make it super-absorbent. Menstrual pads containing this compound have been implicated in cases of toxic shock syndrome.
  5. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) like toluene, xylene, ethyl benzene, and dipentene .They are used in the preparation of  dyes, polymers, and adhesives. But the problem with these chemicals is that they are quickly released into the air when exposed to heat.
  6. Plastics/polymers – Mainly polypropylene and polyethylene, but also includes polyester, polyurethane, and polyolefin. They’re the primary materials used in product packaging, household products, and the production of plastic grocery bags, respectively. Most of a diaper is composed of these non-recyclable plastics.
  7. Phthalates – While they’re used to soften plastics, the diaper’s adhesives, dyes, and perfumes also contain these chemicals. People of any age can have adverse reactions to phthalates, but unborn babies and young children are potentially more susceptible.
  8. Petroleum/petrolatum – Used to keep diapers from leaking.

Disposable nappies require large volumes of pulp, paper, plastic and other raw materials during the manufacturing process and therefore need significant amounts of water and energy.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) ,a nation-wide campaign in India aims to clean up the streets, roads and infrastructure of India’s cities, towns, and rural areas. The Urban populace is given the option of collecting the waste in dustbins even segregating and then putting it in garbage collecting bins (Refuse Collector) of SMC whereby it then gets transported to garbage dumping sites but in rural areas SBA is more or less a disaster both as a concept as well as in reality.Even if the people collect garbage in homes, after some time they are not left with any option and remain in dilemma as to where to put the garbage? This results in them throwing it on roadsides, alleyways and even in water bodies like streams, rivulets or ponds due lack of garbage collectors/sites and established dumping sites thereby the very motive of this campaign gets defeated.

In the absence of Garbage Collectors/Dumping sites, disposable nappies have become a nuisance especially in rural areas as this waste is  thrown in water bodies , roads, alleyways which ultimately reach the agricultural fields.

Government as well as the common populace is equally responsible for this whole mess.

What are the alternatives?

Biodegradable Diapers are one such option. Biodegradable diapers use plant-based materials instead of polyacrylate stuffing, artificial dyes, toxic materials, and plastics. These diapers are little expensive due to higher manufacturing costs users won’t be exposed to harsh chemicals.

Reusable Cloth Diapers: All those people who can’t afford biodegradable diapers  can think of using reusable cloth diapers which have been used for generations.. Redesigned cloth diapers with contours, velcro or snaps, leak protection, and some pretty stylish prints are currently available in the market. Now diapers are made of breathable fabrics and don’t require soaking before washing (like they did previously). Not only are they environmentally friendly, but cost effective as well.

We as responsible citizens should either use alternatives till  affordable environment friendly nappies are readily available and should avoid throwing the used nappies mindlessly on roads or in water bodies. The government functionaries on the other end should install garbage collectors in rural areas so that the people living in these areas are not compelled to throw the waste generated from the use of these diapers in water bodies and roads thereby polluting/choking them.

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