Dumped nappies create health and water safety risks

Mpendulo Ginindza is the president of the Institute of Waste Management Southern Africa. Supplied.

Mpendulo Ginindza is the president of the Institute of Waste Management Southern Africa. Supplied.

Published Jun 8, 2024


THE multibillion rand disposable nappy industry, meant to make lives easier for parents, plays a pivotal role in environmental pollution. From townships to beaches, dumped nappies can be found almost everywhere and the problem is growing worse.

Experts said that every year, millions of nappies were dumped, spoiling the environment and polluting our waterways. In addition, it could take up to 100 years for a disposable nappy to break down. Effective recycling solutions had not yet been found.

Professor Rinie Schenck, from the University of the Western Cape, said it was not only disposable nappies but also other absorbent hygiene products (AHP), like sanitary towels and adult incontinence products, that added to the waste.

“Communities do not necessarily have access to reliable waste collection services and are forced to discard their waste in these open spaces,” she said.

Schenk said that previously, commitments were made to establish refuse-derived fuel plants across the country by 2023, so that AHP waste could be processed through the plants.

However, there was no sign of that and no evidence to suggest that that would be better than incinerating or dumping the waste in landfill sites.

The One Health Forum, an initiative driven by several organisations, including the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), pointed to a long-standing issue of poor AHP waste management in South Africa, particularly in rural, informal and backyard dwellings. It said there were no plans in place to address the issue.

Cherise Acker-Cooper, from the EWT, said that according to the research done, disposable nappies were used for its convenience, comfort and fashion.

She said studies done in a low-income area in the Northern Cape showed that 97% of the households in the study received child support grants and all of them used disposable nappies for an average of 17 months.

“It is estimated that R485 of the R500 received per month was spent on nappies,” she said.

Mpendulo Ginindza, the president of the Institute of Waste Management Southern Africa, suggested that parents be encouraged to make use of cloth nappies again to reduce the problem.

She said dumping of nappies was a major concern, especially in rural areas and other places where there wasn’t proper waste management services.

“The situation is often worse in rural areas where the nappies are disposed of in rivers and open areas. This indiscriminate dumping is made worse by the lack of service delivery in rural and township areas.

Ginindza said that the institute estimated that more than 3.5 billion soiled nappies, or close to 1.1 million tonnes per year thereof; 40 00 tonnes of adult incontinence products; and 1.3 million tonnes of and female hygiene products added considerably to the problem.

“Little wonder, it is estimated that AHP products account for the fourth largest recyclable contributor by volume to landfill space worldwide. Globally, more than 300 000 disposable nappies a minute are sent to landfill, incinerated or end up in the environment, including the ocean”, she said.

Ginindza said that posed a hazard as well as a nuisance to communities.

She said the material that made up the nappies were non-degradable or could take years to degrade. They ended up blocking drains and polluting rivers. Animals were exposed and sometimes end up eating the dumped products.

She said education and awareness were key to helping consumers understand the impact.

“People also need to be aware of alternatives. Families need to support each other. Nappies have helped with taking care of babies and the sick. Other members of families who have used towel nappies before can help and educate younger mothers and make use of towel nappies more easier and fashionable,” said Ginindza.

One of the many sites in Durban where people dump nappies and other items which pollute the earth. Supplied.

However, another waste catastrophe is brewing worldwide, with a record amount of smartphones, televisions and other electrical devices being dumped and polluting the planet, says the UN.

The latest Global E-waste Monitor showed that less than a quarter of the 62 million tonnes of e-waste produced in 2022 was recycled, resulting in heavy metals, plastics and toxic chemicals leaking from dumped devices.

"This is a big catastrophe for the environment," said Kees Balde the lead author of the report.

He said it also posed health risks, particularly in poorer countries where a lot of e-waste was sent from wealthier parts of the globe.

“Consumers can only do so much if the government and business does not make these products easier to recycle. It's very easy to buy something. It's just a few clicks … It's far more difficult to dispose of them," said Balde.

However, far from it being worthless, the UN estimates that the value of the metals in the discarded gadgets amount to $91 billion but less than a third was recovered. The rest was lost when e-waste was burnt, thrown in landfills or improperly recycled.

“The scourge is only going to worsen as demand for new technologies, including solar panels and electric vehicles, outpaces the ability to recycle,” the report says. To put it into context, the report states that roughly twice as much e-waste was produced in 2022 compared to 2010, a weight equivalent to 107 000 of the world's largest and heaviest passenger jets.

That included small everyday items like e-cigarettes and tablets, household appliances like electric toothbrushes and toasters, and larger items like television screens and electric bikes and scooters.

E-waste recycling rates were highest in developed countries and lowest in Africa, where less than 1% was properly handled.

Around 18 million tonnes of e-waste was processed in the developing world, often in informal settings without proper equipment where workers were exposed to dangerous substances.

A lot of the electronic garbage was generated in wealthy countries but shipped to poorer ones “disguised as a second-hand good” that, in reality, no longer worked, Balde said.

The E-Waste Recycling Authority, a South African producer responsibility organisation, said that only 10% of waste was recycled in the country. Electronic waste constituted the fastest growing waste stream of them all.