Poorly disposed diapers a silent menace to environment

Waste dumped along the railway line in Kibera slum. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Athan Mathira was born and brought up at the Dandora dumping site, where he lives to date. He says diapers have become a nuisance and a hindrance in their job of sorting waste and collecting valuables at the dump site.

"When it rains, the diapers absorb water. They swell and stink. When you accidentally step on them, you slide and fall. It is a health and safety hazard. They don't decompose like other waste," Mr Mathira says.

He adds that they sort and collect waste products with their bare hands, risking their lives as they have to interact with diapers full of baby poop.

"Diapers should have their own dump site and they should not be mixed with other waste. Perhaps authorities can dig holes and pour acid on them. Then they should be buried as they stay forever in the environment," he says.

Mr Mathira adds that, compared to sanitary pads coming from schools that are always sorted, diapers come in mixed with regular trash. He says there should be a way of disposing of diapers at the dump site.

Racheal Wambui, who has been working at the dumpsite for more than 15 years says the companies producing diapers should come up with a solution on how to can deal with diaper waste.

"We have never seen a company recycling diapers otherwise we would collect them and sell them. We also need to have reforms so that every household will be sorting diapers and not mixing them with other waste," Ms Wambui says.

Disposable diapers do not decompose or degrade easily and may take years to do so. They have a great impact on ozone depletion as they emit carbon dioxide.

Biodegradable or eco diapers are available in the market but they are more affordable and popular in countries that are more environmentally conscious. In Kenya, biodegradable diapers are available in selected stores and are unreachable to the vast population.

A simple estimate: A one-month-old baby would need at least six diapers per day -- that is 180 diapers a month on the lower side and 2,160 diapers a year. Approximately one million babies are born each year in the country. If every baby uses disposable diapers daily, then the amount of waste being produced is insurmountable (about 2.16 billion diapers a year).

Kenya has no concrete solution to diaper waste. [iStockphoto]

The diapers have two destinations, they either find their way to dump sites with regular daily household waste or they end up littering public spaces and roads and end up becoming a nuisance, especially when dogs make a feast of the waste on diapers, which can lead to many health hazards.

Mary Ngechu the lead patron for TakaTaka ni Mali, a non-profit organisation spearheading waste management for economic benefits, says that most household waste ends up in landfills.

She says that waste segregation at the household level is important. "When we don't manage our waste, it affects all of us."

Ms Ngechu says there needs to be more conversation around reusable nappies compared to single-use diapers. "We need a mindset change, that when you consume, you are aware of what you are disposing of then come up with embracing goods that you can reuse," she says.

She also acknowledges that, at the moment, the country has no concrete solution to diaper waste, with reducing consumption being the immediate start.

In India, the government has made efforts to ensure diaper waste which is highly contaminated, is processed to make fuel.

Nivedha R.M the CEO of Trash Com, a waste recycling company in India, says that in her country, they have a rule of not recycling diapers. However, diapers are incinerated as they belong to biomedical waste.

"We have incinerators in all the cities in India and big towns and that's how the waste is mainly managed as per the law," explains Nivedha.

"We shred them and send the waste to cement plants where it is used instead of coal in what we call refuse-derived fuel (RDF). Currently, we don't recycle but in the future, we hope there will be better innovations in handling diapers," adds Nivedha.