Flies are buzzing lazily around the small mound of diapers as Millicent (not her real name) scratches through the heap of dumped waste near the bank of the Mathari River. If you are keen, you will smell the rotting odor emanating from the river. Millicent is not perturbed. She is desperately searching through the heap of smelly waste looking for her next day’s meal; used paper. Eventually, she will sell the used paper for 30 bob a kilogram. Next to her is a growing mound of diapers which no one seems to care about. I instruct the other youths to collect all the used diapers they can come about as they sift through the smelly waste. My tummy is already filled with the stench that comes from the day’s collection of waste. However, I am determined to collect the very important data that brought me here today.
For the last 7 months, we, through Chemolex Company Limited have been setting up Plastic Capture Devices across rivers Ngong, Nairobi and Mathari, and what hit us hard in the face was the vast amount of diapers being thrown into the rivers. According to the World Data Atlas, an average of 1.4 million children are born annually, therefore, on a given day, approximately three million diapers are disposed-off eventually ending up into the dumpsites or our rivers. This means that from children under one year old, Kenyans dispose over one trillion diapers a year. Now, disposable diapers produce an incredible amount of waste to the environment; a single diaper may take up to a hundred years to fully disintegrate, meaning that the diaper you used as a toddler is still heaped somewhere causing blockade or intact in a landfill. Here is a breakdown of some of the dangerous contents in a disposable baby diaper:-
- Tributyltin (popularly known as TBT) is a biocide commonly used to prevent growth of bacteria. This compound is very dangerous to marine life and causes infertility, still births and organ damage. This substance doesn’t biodegrade and enters our food chain day in day out.
- Volatile Organic Compounds related to brain, liver and other essential organ damages. They include Toulene, xylene, dipentene and ethylbenzene.
- Sodium Polyacrylate – it is the component used as an absorbent and is attributed to toxic shock syndrome. Menstrual pads are also made of these.
- Plastic polymers – most diapers are made of these and we all know the adverse effects plastic have on the environment.
- Petroleum – essential for making the diaper leak proof.
80% of all these diapers are just sitting in a landfill somewhere waiting for a hundred years to start decomposing. Can you imagine the amount of toxic waste that all the diapers are releasing to the environment? Disposable diapers manufacturing was stated in the 1960s, can you imagine that none of the the diapers ever manufactured has never fully decomposed?
From the heap I have collected, I can clearly see the different brands that Kenyan mums like. I can see KissKids, Softcare, Molfix, Pampers, Bouncy and Huggies. They are as unique as they stand out. What is the solution now that the companies are already in business? Diapers are a necessary evil for our kids, but we have a few alternatives that we can think about. For instance, there are companies that have already started manufacturing biodegradable diapers that use plant based material instead of toxic plastic material. However, there are higher costs attached to these biodegradable diapers. They also say old is gold, our Kenyan mums can easily resort to the reusable clothes that were stuck on using safety pins. If you can’t stomach the tough job that comes with washing, you can use the reusable cloth diapers which come in very many brands.
The companies that distribute, manufacture or sell these diapers to the public have a significant role to play. The main target would be the CSR budget where the government requires all companies to set aside about 2% of their budget for Corporate Social Responsibility. Big companies like Molfix, Softcare, Huggies and Kisskids should support all organizations in the waste management sector. The little amount that these companies donate can go a long way in the reduction of their carbon footprint in the environment. Chemolex sets aside a significant budget to fight all plastic that gets thrown into our rivers. We are calling upon all these companies to join us in fighting the pollution in our dear rivers. So far, we engage youths and women groups in removing, collecting, sorting and weighing all the plastic waste we collect from the rivers. Once sorted, we take some of the plastic which we use to recycle into viable products like paving blocks, plastic poles and tiles. Under their R&D departments, these companies also need to come up with better, safer and reusable diapers. Although farfetched for our crippled economy, they should also consider biodegradable diapers which, instead of taking 500+ years to breakdown, would then take 2-3 months to fully breakdown.
So if you are currently using diapers, you can shift to cloth diapers and influence other parents as well. We can safely contain baby poop by not affecting or jeopardizing their future lives or health. Let’s spread the word out here for all the hip parents!