Gotta go (to the kerb)

At last there is a way of recycling absorbent hygiene products in the UK, but what happens when you take nappies out of the equation?  Matilda Zatorski reports

Gotta go to the kerb

There is always lots of talk about nappies in waste circles (especially here at Resource HQ where half the team have babes in arms – talk about a baby boom!). Reusables versus disposables. The cost. Collection logistics. The 4,000 or so the average child gets through before they’re two! 

Nappies, though, are just one component of absorbent hygiene products (AHPs). There are also incontinence pads and female sanitary products, which, understandably, don’t get much press. But just as the baby boom continues, so too the elderly population grows and the need for incontinence pad disposal increases. According to the Bladder and Bowel Foundation, 14 million people in the UK – nearly one in four – are affected by bladder problems, and six and a half million have bowel control problems. 

Indeed, the UK produces more than one million tonnes of AHP waste a year (representing three per cent of all landfill), a third of which comprises incontinence and sanitary products. The country is taking baby steps towards addressing the problem, though, with Knowaste opening the first AHP recycling plant in West Bromwich last year (see Resource 64), and a number of councils supplying the facility through slightly misnomered ‘nappy collections’ for all AHP waste. Participating councils include Cheshire West and Chester Council, Cardiff City and Monmouthshire County Council (MCC), as well as four councils funded by Zero Waste Scotland – Fife, Stirling, Perth and Kinross, and North Lanarkshire. So how are they faring, particularly with the more difficult-to-engage adult incontinence pad users?

In Monmouthshire, the service was rolled out as a trial in March last year. According to Paul Quayle, Waste Education and Awareness Officer, the project was started to help families with alternate weekly collections, and came more from necessity than an overarching plan: “We never looked at costs exactly, we just needed something else when the collections went fortnightly for those who were not coping with the amount of waste they had, particularly families with lots of children.” 

Currently, 1,000 of MCC’s 40,000 households are registered for the service, and Quayle thinks the figure could double. Unfortunately, the numbers aren’t broken down between nappy users and incontinence pad users, though Quayle believes there has been some take-up in addition to AHP waste collection from OAP complexes. 

Working in partnership with SE Wales Regional Group, MCC currently makes collections every other week, with householders using big orange stickers to identify AHP waste bags. Quayle explains the reasoning behind the pilot: “We wanted to make sure that we could actually get enough tonnage to send to Knowaste and that the recycling was feasible. There was quite a bit of contamination to begin with, up to 25 per cent, with people treating the collection as [an] opportunity to get rid of their residual waste, too. But with a little bit of education, it’s gone remarkably well. We’ve proved that it works and are now gearing up to promote the service across the region.”

The promotion will run alongside the council’s overhaul of household waste collections starting this summer. AHP collections will start taking place every week in yellow and black-striped ‘tiger’ bags. Asked whether this might deter incontinence pad users, Paul responds: “They are not as discreet as the black bin liners, but Cardiff [which already uses them] has not reported any issues. For incontinence pad users, we can always arrange to pick up the bags from a certain area, be that behind the wall or even behind the house, to avoid any embarrassment.” 

In the last 12 months, MCC and Cardiff have diverted 400 tonnes of AHP waste from landfill. Quayle is keen for the service to be expanded throughout Wales to bump up the tonnage sent to Knowaste, which would lower gate prices and increase recyclability. “The only issues we’ve come across are ones of logistics – for instance, processing the maximum number of nappies that are in reasonably good condition. If they’re too old, they start to deteriorate, meaning the fibres can’t be recycled… [W]e’ve been surprised by how much we can get in the containers, so our transport costs are not as high as we expected.” 

MCC has also had issues with people signing up for the service but not using it regularly. And then, of course, there’s the name: “We’re still debating whether to call it a ‘nappy service’ or use the term ‘hygiene products’ in the name... We don’t want to show any disrespect to the users, so it’s caused quite a debate.”

So, maybe we were overthinking how a kerbside AHP collection would run, after all. Perhaps, having got used to separating recyclables and food waste, residents are willing and able to separate nappies, incontinence pads and female hygiene products. And, with talk of more AHP recycling facilities opening up in the UK, more councils need to get on board to feed the plants. The key, it seems, is to break through the barriers and to treat it just like any other waste. 

A user's point of view

When you’re caring for someone, it’s practical things that tend to occupy your mind. You focus on things you can do, and try not to contemplate the unfairness of old age. 

So, with a father now relying on incontinence pads, I was surprised at how quickly they build up. It’s obvious, now I write that – after all, my baby’s nappies fill my AWC 180-litre wheelie bin, and they’re half the size. However, knowing that there was talk of a nappy collection trial from the kerbside where he lives in Monmouthshire, I thought I might try to get them cleared more often – there’s no wheelie bin, you see, so storage is a problem.

My first step was to talk to the social worker and the carer about signing up for the collection service. Neither knew anything and looked at me as if I was as barmy as my dad. The social worker at least said he would look into it; he phoned later to say, “No, there is no such service” (undertone: don’t be so daft). I was undeterred and a call to the waste and recycling department revealed we could use the ‘nappy’ service. 

This article was taken from Issue 71

Some round, discreet orange labels arrived to stick on the normal black bags used for the residual waste, which identifies them as being AHP without saying so. In the accompanying literature, covered in images of babies, we were advised to collect the nappies in black bags, put a sticker on them and put them out for collection every other week (for non-AHP weeks, we’d just have to go back to the regular bin bags). It’s funny, but my dad didn’t seem to worry about the idea of people seeing black bags outside his house with stickers on them, though he did keep on asking me if I was sure it was for adult nappies, as there was no mention of them in the literature. 

One problem we encountered is that the trucks come around at ‘7am exactly’ – apparently to save embarrassment – and if you miss it three times, you get struck off. 

This is difficult. You’ve got the embarrassment issue, yes, so I can understand that it needs to be a time when there aren’t many people about. But how on earth is an elderly fellow meant to get the bins out for 7am, or a harassed, sleep-deprived mother who lives in another city meant to remember which week it is? It’s not going to happen. No one at the council suggested that they could be picked up from the side of the house, something that I’ve been told since, but only after three strikes. 

While the idea of the service is great, I do think that an inconspicuous outdoor, lockable bin could be provided to sit outside and be collected from behind the garden wall or suchlike every week.