by Mukhtar Ahmad Farooqi
As responsible citizens, we should either use alternatives until affordable environment-friendly nappies are readily available or avoid throwing the used nappies everywhere.
Pollution is a global problem that has a direct impact on climate change and environmental sustainability. We all are aware of different forms of pollution like air, water, noise, and plastic that are widely debated across different platforms.
A type of plastic pollution namely disposable baby diapers has become a key source of environmental pollution. A potential health hazard, its impact on the environment is least discussed by the activists. In this write-up, we will try to understand the various nuances of this pollution and the alternatives we can use instead of these.
Disposable nappy was officially created and patented for the first time in 1948 and has become an easy solution for parents to keep baby poop under control. Synthetic diapers began being produced in the 1960s and gained popularity with the passage of time. They are a billion-dollar industry.
Disposable diapers may seem more convenient but their environmental impact is unimaginable because almost 90 per cent of nappies are dumped into landfills, covered and not exposed to sun or air at all thereby the harmful chemicals that are present in these diapers get subsequently dispersed into the environment. Disposable diapers are made from synthetic materials (non-recyclable polyethylene plastic) which are non-biodegradable in nature.
Besides the accumulation of waste, disposable diapers contain many harmful substances. Some of the toxic substances present in them and their effect on living beings are:
Tributyltin (TBT): It is a biocide that 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.
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.
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 coloured straps and the convenient strip telling you whether the baby needs to be changed. Diapers use perfumes to hide odours. Chemicals used in these processes add to the list.
Sodium polyacrylate: This chemical is known as water-lock, 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.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) like toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, 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.
Plastics/polymers: Mainly polypropylene and polyethylene, but also include polyester, polyurethane, and polyolefin. They are 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.
Phthalates: While they are 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.
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) is a nation-wide campaign in India that aims to clean up the streets, roads and infrastructure of India’s cities, towns, and rural areas. The urban populace have 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 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 left with no other option and remain in dilemma about where to put the garbage and throw that on roadsides, alleyways and even in water bodies like streams, rivulets or ponds due to lack of garbage collectors/sites and established dumping sites thereby the very motive of this campaign gets vanished.
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 reaches the agricultural fields.
Who to blame?
Government, as well as the common populace, is equally responsible for this mess. As far as government functionaries are concerned, they are not taking initiatives till we reach any destructive output while we as commoners imbibe anything in our daily routine without pondering on the consequences. Even if we limit the use of these diapers/sanitary napkins, waste/pollution can be reduced to a great extent.
Moreover, our higher education institutions lack sanitary napkin dispensers/disposers which are the main reason of pollution in educational institutions especially around areas where toilets facilities are established. Due to lackadaisical government functioning, napkin dispensers are installed in elementary educational institutions where their utility can be considered negligible.
It takes hundreds of years for the majority of the disposable nappy brands to decompose when exposed to sunlight and air. To safeguard the future, we need to consider alternatives.
Biodegradable Diapers are one such option. Biodegradable diaper use plant-based materials instead of polyacrylate stuffing, artificial dyes, toxic materials, and plastics. These diapers are little expensive.
Reusable Cloth Diapers: All those people who can’t afford biodegradable diapers can think of using reusable cloth diapers which had been in use for eternity. 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). These alternatives are not only are they environmentally friendly, but cost-effective as well.
As responsible citizens, we should either use alternatives until affordable environment-friendly nappies are readily available or avoid throwing the used nappies everywhere. The government functionaries must install garbage collectors in rural areas so that the people are not compelled to throw the waste generated from the use of these diapers in water bodies and roads thereby polluting/choking them.
(Mukhtar Ahmad Farooqi is a freelance writer and educator. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Kashmir Life.)