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Disposable diapers pose environmental challenges

Having a newly-born baby can be both surreal and costly for parents.For most fathers and mothers, the responsibility comes with the demand of providing for the toddler and these range from economic, social to environmental changes, among many others.

By Kennedy Nyavaya

Of late, it is the environmental repercussions that are seemingly overlapping to not just directly affect the parents, but other members of society.

Disposable diapers or pampers have ultimately taken over as baby nappies of choice, a convenient option for mothers, especially in urban settlements, but their disposal after use has created a conundrum for local authorities and urban dwellers.

Owing to the poor waste management systems in urban areas, the alternative ways to get rid of waste is either dumping at an open space or burning, both environmentally detrimental methods.

During the rainy season, this writer witnessed people stepping on flowing diapers filled with faecal matter, an eyesore with far-reaching implications on human life.
But, the reusable fabric nappies do not seem an easy route either taking into consideration the scarcity of potable water, especially in highly-populated urban settings.
However, research has proved that decaying diapers release methane, a dangerous and highly explosive gas, into the air that readily displaces oxygen in the natural environment.

In addition, they release volatile organic and toxic chemicals such as toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, substances which have been linked to adverse health effects in the long run.

This means that to safeguard people from the adverse effects of careless dumping and burning of disposable diapers, a procedure that has endured for long is incineration, a method used to dispose of infectious wastes, which minimises the released pollutants that can lead to serious health problems and environmental degradation.

To achieve this, local authorities may first need to have incinerators in place, as well as encourage waste separation.

Below are some of the advantages effective incineration may present to the nation:

Reduces volume of solid waste

Incinerators reduce waste volume by approximately 95% and reduce the solid mass of the original waste by 80% to 85%. (The exact percentage depends on the constituent materials of the solid waste). Therefore, while incineration does not eliminate the need for dumping ground completely, it certainly reduces the amount of land needed. For small countries, this is significant as landfills take up large amounts of space that could be used more productively.

Power and heat generation

As energy costs went up in the 1950s, numerous countries sought to incorporate the energy and heat generated from garbage incinerators for the production of electricity through steam turbines. Furthermore, Europe and Japan have incorporated incinerators into urban central heating systems. Sweden, for instance, produces 8% of its heating needs from 50% of the waste incinerated.

Reduces pollution

Studies have shown that solid waste incinerators produce less pollution than landfills. One study in particular, conducted during a 1994 lawsuit in the United States, showed that a waste incinerator site was more environmentally friendly than an equivalent landfill. (Both were 1 500-tonne-per-day facilities.) The study found that the landfill released higher amounts of greenhouse gases, hydrocarbons, non-methane organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, nitrogen oxides and dioxin than an incinerator. Landfills further leach dangerous chemicals into the underlying groundwater, which can contaminate underground water systems.

Filters trap pollutants

A major concern associated with incinerating solid waste was the release of dangerous compounds, dioxin in particular. Nevertheless, modern incineration plants use filters to trap dangerous gases and particulate matter like dioxin. The release of dioxin by most modern incineration plants is well within the recommended limits prescribed by the Environmental Management Agency and international protocols.

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