Paper diapers are roughly divided into two types: those for infants and those for adults. Paper diapers for infants, which are highly convenient as they do not require laundering like cloth diapers, are essential for daily life in Japan. Paper diapers for adults have also become indispensable, given the increasing number of persons requiring nursing care and the shortage of caregivers, in line with the progressive aging of society. In 2018, in Japan, the annual production of paper diapers for infants was approximately 15.1 billion, equal to 480,000 tonnes, while that of diapers for adults mainly used in nursing care facilities and medical institutions stood at about 8.4 billion, equal to about 390,000 tonnes [1
]. The production volume has been increasing for 10 years, since 2010: 1.7 times for diapers for adults and 1.9 times for those for infants. Paper diapers for adults, in particular, are expected to further increase in the future, due to the rise in the elderly population [2
Paper diapers consist of pulp or superabsorbent polymer (SAP) used as a moisture absorber, exterior materials, waterproof materials, and plastic materials such as polyethylene or polypropylene used in internal nonwoven fabric material. Pulp, which accounts for the majority of the materials, is made of virgin materials for needle bleached kraft pulp (NBKP, or nadelholz bleached kraft pulp in German). The annual consumption of materials for NBKP, SAP, and plastics is estimated at approximately 330,000, 230,000, and 250,000 tonnes, respectively, based on the annual production [1
] and the material composition of paper diapers (study by Unicharm Corp.).
The majority of used paper diapers from general households are collected and incinerated by local governments as combustible waste in the category of domestic general waste [3
]. Paper diapers are considered to cover 6%–7% of the total volume of household combustible waste, and the high moisture content due to excreta included in used paper diapers leads to a low calorific value, inhibiting heat recovery efficiency during combustion [4
]. Used paper diapers from business operators such as nursing care facilities and hospitals are not collected by local governments in principle but instead are entrusted to special disposal companies who collect and incinerate them as general waste from business activities or specially controlled waste [5
As such, used paper diapers are mostly incinerated in Japan, but there are also some efforts and study cases on the recycling of paper diapers. Fujiyama et al. [6
] conducted an analysis and a comparison with incineration processing of the material recycling of recovered recycled pulp to be used for fireproof plates, in addition to the manufacture of refuse paper and plastic fuel (RPF) from the thermal recycling of used paper diapers. They reported that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from recycling can be reduced by about 37% compared with incineration. A study related to the recycling of water absorptive sanitary products [7
] also discussed thermal recycling treatment systems for processing used paper diapers recovered as they are, without separating or cleaning them, for conversion into solid fuel. Quantification of environmental loads adopting the life cycle assessment (LCA) is not confirmed, but reference was made to the possibility of reducing CO2
emissions by using them as boiler fuel instead of fossil fuel. In the recycling of used paper diapers targeted for studies reported by Itsubo et al. [9
], the preceding report of this paper revealed that recycled pulp has the same quality as NBKP, the virgin material that is the main component of paper diapers, which shows that pulp can be closed-loop recycled. It is also indicated that GHG emissions can be reduced by about 26% compared with incineration, as well as significant reductions in water consumption and land use occupation, areas where the pulp is considered to have high potential effects.
The present study introduces a new recycling technology that achieves the closed-loop recycling of SAP. This new recycling technology adopts a new crushing/cleaning/separating technology and improves the recycling rate for pulp, etc., and recycles SAP to the same quality as virgin materials, where SAP was thermally recycled with the preceding recycling technology. The environmental load over the entire life cycle of paper diapers from the acquisition of raw materials to the disposal/recycling phases is quantified.
There have been several reports on the recycling of used disposable diapers overseas [7
]. An LCA report [12
], which collected data from an experimental-scale recycling plant, stated that plastics could be recycled and pulp containing SAP could be used to generate the steam needed for the sterilization process, which indicates that the environmental impact is reduced compared to landfill disposal.
Many previous studies have focused on climate change. Disposable diapers use paper as the main material, and the supply of chips, the main raw material for paper, requires a lot of land use and water consumption. Recycling of disposable diapers is expected to contribute to reducing the burden on water consumption and land use but has not been evaluated in previous studies. In this study, in addition to climate change, water consumption and land use are evaluated.
As the production of paper diapers is expected to increase in the future, there is a strong need for an appropriate recycling technology in terms of waste treatment after use and for sustainable use of resources. While previous studies and cases are limited to open-loop recycling, the present study achieved closed-loop recycling of pulp and SAP from “paper diapers to paper diapers” thanks to a new technology, thus clarifying that the environmental load can be further reduced compared to that in the preceding report [9
] in the assessment of GHG emissions, water consumption, and land use occupation for the life cycle of recycling used paper diapers (see Table 14
). The recycling technology in this study demonstrated a high recycling effect by enabling the recycling of high-quality pulp and SAP. In the future, further reductions in environmental impact are expected through the efficiency of SAP regeneration and the improvement of the recycling rate. On the other hand, in this study, it was considered that uncertainties were included from the following points, but even if these factors are taken into consideration, a significant reduction in environmental load was confirmed.
The recycling facility from which the data were collected is a prototype, so its representativeness may be low.
Japanese data were used for LCA calculations.
Thermal coal and electricity were set as alternative products for the recycling effect. However, if these are changed to other products, the recycling effect may change.
In addition, it is expected that the recycling process of this study will have great social and economic benefits. Analyses focused on social and economic aspects were also assumed, but were not included in this study due to the difficulty in obtaining data, etc., and the immature evaluation method.