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Nagoya group looks to turn disposable diaper waste into fuel

Municipalities seek ways to deal with a problem that will only get worse as the population ages

Chunichi Shimbun

Three men whose companies are involved in the manufacture and sales of disposable diapers — the use of which is expected to increase with the aging population — have started an association in Nagoya to research ways to turn them into fuel.

The Nippon Disposable Diaper Recycling Promotion Association, founded in May, is just getting started, but there are many other parties pursuing the same goal.

The three founders are 50-year-old Osamu Asai, president of Tokiwa TC Co., a company that sells health care products for the elderly in Nagoya; 60-year-old Masanobu Ito, director of Cosumo Tekuno Co., which provides industrial waste treatment in Nagoya; and 61-year-old Ryoichi Sudo, adviser to Tokyo-based Oji Nepia Co., which has a factory in Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture.

Three years ago, Asai was shocked to discover the amount of disposable diapers used by a client hospital. The hospital only has 120 beds but discards 3.6 tons of disposable diapers each month.

Ito, whose company collects the diapers from the hospital, explained: “The water content makes the diapers heavy and difficult to burn. (They are) a hassle because we need to add heavy oil into the furnace to burn them.”

Raw food waste, which also has high water content, can be composted, but disposable diapers remain a huge strain on Japan’s effort to reduce trash.

Asai’s company also has dealings with Oji Nepia, so Asai and Ito approached Sudo in their effort to find a way to recycle disposable diapers, marking the beginning of the trio’s collaboration.

They set up the office for the new association on the site of Asai’s company. The first step was gathering information on recycling measures taken throughout the country. Their final goal is to propose an effective recycling method to municipalities as a nongovernmental organization.

Five companies, including a distributor of sanitary products and a waste treatment facility from Iwate, Hyogo and other prefectures, have joined as members.

According to the association, many places have recently begun looking into recycling as a disposal method.

Two years ago, the town of Hoki in Tottori Prefecture became the first municipality to collect used disposable diapers from hospitals and nursing homes. The paper diapers have to be disposed of in special garbage bags, which cost ¥50 each, but the facilities do not need to remove the waste from the diapers.

The collected diapers are broken into fragments and then dried with hot air — using a machine that was developed by a local venture company at a cost of ¥72 million — and converted into pellets that can be used as fuel at a spa. The town treats 1.2 tons of disposable diapers a day, including those collected from neighboring towns.

“We can do this on a small scale because we only have a population of 10,000,” said a representative of the Hoki effort.

Meanwhile, the town of Oki in Fukuoka Prefecture melts paper diapers in water and reuses the paper as construction materials, while the plastic parts are converted into fuel. However, the town admits this approach is costly.

Equipment manufacturers are also developing small processing machines for hospitals and nursing homes.

“This is a developing industry. We hope to come up with a good method and share the information with local governments and members,” Sudo said.

According to the Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association, 810,000 tons of disposable diapers were produced in the country in 2015, a 69 percent increase from 10 years earlier. As of 2015, diapers for children constituted 60 percent of the market, but they are predicted to be overtaken by diapers for adults by 2020.

“After they are used, diapers expand to triple their original size due to the water content, so we believe the annual disposable diaper waste is 2.4 million tons at the moment,” Sudo said.

Processing costs, including for collection, are estimated to be ¥168 billion — almost the same as the annual sales of diapers.

The Environment Ministry’s office for recycling promotion began investigating the effectiveness of recycling diapers in April.

“We will consider the necessity of creating a guideline for recycling based on the results,” a ministry official said.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Aug. 16.