Recycling Dutch diapers the Canadian way

24th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

For a small country, the Netherlands turns out heaps of soiled nappies. Find out how Canadian know-how is solving the Dutch diaper problem. Roberta Cowan reports.

Known for their head-on approach to dealing with uncomfortable issues including prostitution, drugs and euthanasia, the Dutch, with the help of a Canadian environmental company, are now tackling mountains of dirty diapers.

Aging populations in need of personal care products and diapered babies in North America use 19 billion diapers each year. The EU is in second place with 16 billion. Space, however, is limited in Europe and there just isn’t much left to fill with soiled nappies.

Three years in the Netherlands, The Canadian-Dutch Knowaste BV, based five miles from the German boarder in the city of Arnhem, is a subsidiary of Knowaste LLC, from Canada. Knowaste designed and patented a process, considered Canadian intellectual property that recovers pulp, plastic and SAP (Super Absorbent Polymer) from used diapers.

The Dutch have embraced the diaper recycling technique as a cost-effective, environmentally sound and lucrative business solution to what amounts to a messy problem for such a small country.

Canadian mom thinks big

The technology was brainstormed in the mid-80s by Marlene Conway, a single mother of two toddlers.

Literally dragging garbage bags out to the curb, Conway realised, she was hauling an incredible volume of waste, both harmful to the environment and potentially useful if safe material could be recovered.

 According to at least 85 percent of parents use disposable diapers. She experimented for a few years until she discovered a treatment to separate diaper compounds based on her premise that fluff wood pulp had sufficient integrity to re-enter the manufacturing process.

Conway grew Knowaste into a commercial enterprise by 1996 and then stepped down to continue inventing solutions to environmental problems. Today she teaches math and is the President of Envirolutions Canada.

Her Knowaste toddler has grown and flown the coop, moving full-scale operations in 1999 to the Netherlands.

Dutch government gets on board

The company has impressed upon the population and government to the extent that in October 2001 the Dutch ministry of the environment introduced a directive obliging health care institutes and municipalities to recycle diapers wherever the technology exists providing the costs do not exceed NLG 100 per ton more than current disposal methods.

In response to this government directive, Knowaste BV, the only disposable diaper recycling company has changed its business plan.

”Within a year we aim to have 60 percent of the adult market and extend baby diaper pick-ups to more than 50 municipalities in the three Benelux countries, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands,” said Knowaste President, Roy Brown. Currently, baby diapers are only collected in the town of Arnhem but Knowaste plans to set up baby diaper stations in Nijmegen and Eindhoven before the end of the year.


The company collects the bulk of diapers from 1000 nursing homes in the Benelux region, which is, according to Brown, 40 percent of the adult market.

“We wanted to introduce the technology and get the business in Arnhem off the ground at our first full-scale plant. Collecting from nursing homes is, frankly, easier than door to door. The demand for service from parents and daycares has been overwhelming and we are very keen to think up creative solutions to collect baby diapers,” said Brown.

Dutch parents organise

News reports in Holland about Knowaste have provoked Dutch parents and daycares to organize. Demand for diaper drop-off sites with parents willing to hand deliver their packages is increasing in cities and towns around the country.

The Dutch ride bikes or walk their newspapers and glass for recycle to neighbourhood bins and now they are looking for appropriate diaper drop-off spots. The Arnhem test case, which locates odour and bacteria controlled units outside day-care centres has proven extremely popular both with the centres and parents delivering their children to day-care.

“I am willing to hand-deliver the little bundles and I would be very happy if Knowaste set up in Amsterdam,” said Nies Medema, a new mother. “This service does not exist here and I wish it would because these diapers are terrible for the environment.”

Until toilet trained, one toddler will use between 5500 and 6000 disposable diapers creating one metric ton or 2200lbs of waste. In North America, most of those diapers end up in landfills and as non-biodegradable garbage outlive the toddlers who wear them by more than four lifetimes.

It is unknown how disposable diapers, with untreated human waste, affects ground water.

Recycle versus landfill or incineration

The Netherlands is a country reclaimed in part from waters of the North Sea, an artificially created land, of which almost half is at or below sea-level and where ground water contamination could provoke a national catastrophe. Those diapers not captured by Knowaste are most likely incinerated.

The Knowaste BV plant, situated on a three acre, leafy, compound with ten other environmental companies is spotless and feels more like the inside of an Ikea outlet than a factory. Tests are conducted daily both on site and at an independent lab to insure all bacteria are killed and chemicals neutralised.

The recovered pulp is high-quality, ink free, has long fibres and is pre-sold to a Dutch paper company. The recovered plastic is used to produce industrial plastic products. The SAP is also recovered and used in farming as bio-gas. The Arnhem plant recycles 5000 diapers per hour and has capacity to process 70,000 metric tons at full capacity.

“The Benelux is the perfect launching pad for our technology with low lands, high density population and near capacity incineration and land fills and of course, a public concerned about their environment,” said Brown. “Landfills are abundant and cheap in North America and even though ground water issues should be of the highest priority, we still have a lot more public education ahead of us at home.”

Western European countries, including Germany and France, will need to recycle diapers within a decade according to Knowaste.

Knowaste LLC is currently negotiating deals in other low land, high-density countries including Japan and Korea.

Subject: Expat profiles

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