One of the current buzz words for products and packaging these days is “biodegradable”, meaning that something can be broken down by living microorganisms like bacteria and fungi and return to harmless elements found in nature. Sounds pretty great, right? Well, there’s a little more to it than that. We frequently field questions asking if our diapers are biodegradable and we notice that a number of companies tout this on their labels. But there’s a lot of confusion about what it means for a product to be truly biodegradable. With consumers (us included!) demanding more eco-friendly products and companies working to provide them, we thought we’d have an honest talk about what biodegradability really means and what we here at ABBY&FINN are doing to protect the earth and its resources.
The usual assumption is that if a disposable diaper label says “biodegradable”, you can use that thing (well, your baby can), toss it in your diaper genie, and once it’s out your door (picked up in your black trash can because our compost bins clearly state ‘No Diapers’), the used diaper will find its way to a spot where it can biodegrade and return to natural elements. The image conjured in a consumer’s mind tilts toward a rich, loamy pile of earth sprouting a single young plant and we get all the good Mother Nature feels. We all want to feel that way about the products we use. Unfortunately, it’s not so rosy-colored in reality.
In order for a diaper to truly biodegrade, its products have to be separately collected and sent to particular recycling or industrial composting facilities. “Separately collecting” those potentially biodegradable products from a used diaper looks a little like this: scraping out the poop, disassembling the diaper into its different components (we're talking the tabs, the top layer, the wood pulp filler etc), then shipping each component to the facility that specializes in biodegrading that component. And forget about using any of that then biodegraded material for anything related to food production because it once held human waste (yeah, we’re talking poop and pee here) and contains potentially harmful bacteria. Ummm…yeah. So while a diaper might say “biodegradable” on its label, it’s not exactly like you can toss it in the forest and it will sweetly be absorbed by some happy mushrooms and fallen leaves to nourish the earth. And littering and landfilling, even when the waste biodegrades under these conditions, does not recover any value.
It’s hard. We all want to feel good about the products we use. But the lack of transparency and education on the process of how products biodegrade under very specific conditions can actually make the global plastic problem even worse. Consumers can be misled by marketing and myths. We think that talking about some of the biodegradability myths out there as well as honestly and openly discussing what ABBY&FINN is doing is a good starting point for consumers to be able to make informed choices that we can all feel good about.
To be biodegradable, a product must only be made from plants and trees.
While biodegradability is a property inherent to renewable resources like plants and trees, there are also quite a few non-renewable petrochemical-based plastics on the market that are biodegradable. In essence, in order for a product to return to harmless elements found in nature, it does not have to be completely plant-based to begin with. (Plant-based is another one of those buzz words that seems to float around a lot and while we don’t want to take away from its importance, it can be overused. I mean, a diaper made entirely of poison ivy would be plant-based, but nobody wants that!)
All plant-based materials are biodegradable.
When plant-based resources are converted into final products and packaging materials, the original property of biodegradability can change or even disappear completely. An example is a packaging bag made from biopolyethylene (bio-PE) derived from sugarcane or beets. After all conversion processes, the final material is chemically identical to petrochemical-based PE. Therefore, Bio-PE is not biodegradable, even though it is plant-based.
I can throw away a biodegradable product in nature and conveniently, it will then disappear and harmlessly meld back into the environment.
No bio-based plastic material exists that is able to biodegrade in every type of environment. Open nature, rivers, oceans, septic tanks and sewage systems, landfills, home and industrial composting systems all biodegrade differently. In order to further guarantee a product will biodegrade in a specific environment, various testing methods and certifications exist. The only way to recover value from wasted products, is to separately collect them and send them to a recycling or industrial composting facility. (Remember all that talk about scraping poop and dismantling a diaper into individual parts for shipping to different facilities? Yeah, that’s the reality of fully biodegrading those specific components of a diaper.) Additionally, littering and landfilling, even when the waste biodegrades under these conditions, does not recover any value from the used materials. You are not going to be retrieving new potting soil from a biodegraded diaper.
Examples: A plant-based polylactic acid (PLA) is made from corn starch or sugar cane. PLA only biodegrades in an industrial composting facility. That means it will not biodegrade in home compost, not in open nature, not in landfill, not in oceans. The material must be sent to an industrial composting installation to biodegrade. But marketers can claim their products are “biodegradable”, thus really misleading consumers trying to do the right thing.
Additionally, most plastics labelled biodegradable do not break down in oceans. Plastics are typically heavier than water, so they sink to deeper, darker, and colder water and sediment. But the optimal conditions for biodegradation are just the opposite: presence of light, oxygen, higher temperatures and a lot of microbial life. When ocean conditions only allow partial or slow degradation, this can result in microplastics, a problem even worse for marine and human life as it will enter our food system.
Biodegradation of diapers in a landfill is good for the environment.
There is no denying that landfills are the single largest man-made source of methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times worse versus the most prevalent greenhouse gas CO2. In a landfill, methane is formed when materials biodegrade in absence of air.
A key factor here is a material’s speed of biodegradation. If a material biodegrades faster than it takes to physically close the landfill with a film, the methane escapes to open air and causes a greenhouse effect. However, if a material biodegrades slowly, the landfill can be closed in time and the majority of methane gasses can be captured for energy production or converted back into less harmful CO2. That means that plant-based materials used in hygiene products such as wood pulp, viscose and cotton will slowly biodegrade in landfills. This is preferable because those fast-degrading materials in landfills could make the global climate change problem even worse in terms of escaped methane emissions.
Diapers with a higher percentage of biodegradable content are better.
Making disposable hygiene products more biodegradable will not help our planet when they are still burned, dumped in landfills, or littered in nature. Though they may be well-intended, they could cause more harm creating microplastics and methane emissions.
Again, the only scenario in which biodegradation makes sense is when used hygiene products are separately collected and treated in industrial composting installations or biogas digesters. Be sure to check with your community’s compost collecting service (if there is one available) as many specifically prohibit diapers. Home composting diapers is not recommended because human waste can be filled with bacteria and other pathogens that may spread disease. The typical home compost pile doesn’t get hot enough to kill these organisms.
The ideal diaper suitable for composting is the one with the lowest possible content of non-biodegradable plastics, not necessarily the one with the highest percentage of biodegradable material. A heavier diaper that contains more biodegradable materials but has the same (or worse, a greater) amount of non-biodegradable plastics compared to a conventional diaper only increases the overall amount of diaper waste. Cutting down on waste is one of the surest ways to reduce the environmental impact of disposable diapers. Are there other items that are much easier to biodegrade, yes, but right now, diapers are just not one of them.
So where do we go from here? Have we depressed the poop out of you? That’s not our goal at all! But we do want you as an environmentally-conscious consumer to be educated in such a way that you make the best decisions possible. We aren’t making a claim here that our disposable diapers are good for the environment. What we are saying is that we are doing everything possible to make our diapers as non-damaging to the environment as we can while also informing you of the choices we are making and why. We aren’t out to dupe you with marketing buzz words like “biodegradable” and “natural” that trick you into thinking diapers have no impact on the earth. They do. And we’re here to minimize that impact as much as possible.
So what are we working towards at ABBY&FINN to ensure we are doing our part to help our planet and producing products that are more environmentally friendly?
- Producing diapers that are made with PEFC (Pan European Forestry Council) certified wood pulp. PEFC certification ensures that products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. The FSC is a leading global alliance of national forest certification systems. As an international non-profit, non-governmental organization, they are dedicated to promoting sustainable forest management through independent third-party certification.
- Incorporating Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) wood pulp in the absorbent core of the diaper. This component is biodegradable and makes up 35-40% of our diapers depending on size. TCF pulp means that the bleaching process does not use chlorine or chlorine derivatives. Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) pulp production uses chlorine dioxide, which is a chlorine derivative and results in the release of dangerous chemicals into the environment such as halogenated organic pollutants and chlorinated compounds.
- Partnering with a manufacturer who has 91% of their emissions coming from electricity consumption in their plants. Additionally, 86% of their production waste is recycled or incinerated with energy recuperation at group level.
- Ensuring our manufacturing facility is ISO 14001 certified, which guarantees a set of criteria for an effective environmental management system.
- Packaging diapers in larger bundles. This means less plastic wrapping entering the environment as waste.
- Thoughtfully selecting recyclable packaging when possible.
- Allowing customers to mix sizes in the same box for flexibility. This results in fewer unused diapers when a baby grows.
- Bundling our shipments so that all items ship in one appropriately sized box. This means fewer packages wasted and greater efficiency with reduced emissions.
- Creating ultra absorbing, high performance diapers. This means your baby stays drier for longer, leading to less frequent diaper changes and less diapers used.
We’re all striving to leave as small a footprint as we can on Earth through our choices and actions. And that can involve compromise. All of our choices have consequences, but armed with the understanding of what those consequences look like, we believe consumers can be better equipped to make choices that more positively affect the Earth. Knowledge and understanding also enables consumers to demand more honesty, transparency, and better practices from companies. Is there a 100% biodegradable diaper out there? No, not yet. But we at ABBY&FINN are committed to continuing research and development to find methods to lessen the environmental impact of diapers and make those diapers accessible and high performing. It’s a tall order, but we are up to the task and hope you’ll come along too.