TRENTON, N.J. (Jan. 24, 11 a.m. ET) — One of the dirtiest and most demonized portions of the municipal waste stream may soon be diverted from landfills.
Developing a recycling solution for used disposable diapers, a biological amalgam of complexity, has been a top priority of the global research and development team at TerraCycle Inc., a Trenton-based company whose mission is to create innovative solutions for waste streams.
TerraCycle’s team of scientists, led by Ernie Simpson, global vice president of research and development, is about to put a clothespin on its formula that will render dirty diapers into a material suitable for plastic lumber, pallets and outdoor furniture.
“We have come up with a continuous method of collecting the material, processing the materials using various methods for sterilization, testing and processing and certain parts of the diaper will be compostable,” Simpson said. “We are 90 percent of the way there with only a small portion of the process yet to be completed. I expect that will happen in the first quarter of 2012.”
Albe Zakes, TerraCycle’s global vice president of media relations, said the company is excited about the process.
“We think it could revolutionize the use of disposable diapers,” Zakes said.
TerraCycle hopes to launch the diaper recycling program in September. He is hopeful the program will be sponsored by Huggies Brand, its partner in collecting diaper packaging, but the program will accept diapers of any kind.
“We will roll it out in test markets by setting up these smell- and contaminant-proof collection containers [much like the Diaper Genie on a grand scale] at daycare centers and will also offer smaller shipping containers for personal use,” he said.
Zakes said the company will “reach out to the couple hundred [daycare centers] already in our program to see who wants to be involved” and the first 25 which volunteer will become the test markets.
“[Recycling] used diapers was a pretty tall order. It’s solving the most complex waste stream known right now in the U.S. There is no more complicated waste stream than that,” said Simpson. “The collection and subsequent disposal [of diapers] in large cities is a tremendous burden. If they can be recycled into useable products, that is a bonus for just about any large city.”
Simpson said his team of about 10 has worked on developing the solution for less than a year. The impetus for this endeavor came from TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky.
“When Tom Szaky comes to me and says, ‘Make it happen,’ that’s how it starts, and I have to make it happen,” he said. “It’s a matter of the intensity and forward-thinking of the CEO is why we are where we are today.”
Simpson wouldn’t reveal much about the recycling process, other than to say his team used standard processes for the plastics industry, but those processes are “innovative in how our formulas are put together.”
TerraCycle’s research and development team is also working on recycling solutions for feminine hygiene products, discarded chewing gum and cigarette butts.
Simpson said there is no major difference between the recycling process of used diapers and feminine hygiene products.
“By construction they are built from roughly the same materials, and chemically all the materials used are similar,” he said. “The process sterilizes the materials from any fecal matter or blood-borne pathogens.”
The collection of used feminine hygiene products would be similar to that of diapers.
“We are about 80 percent there, and we will start the program in Brazil and work back to the United States, depending on our partners,” Simpson said.
Working with TerraCycle’s counterpart in Brazil, Simpson’s team developed a solution for used chewing gum in about six months.
Simpson said his scientists developed a formulation using chewed gum along with other plastic products to create a container that can be placed in public places as a receptacle for people to discard their “already-been-chewed” gum.
He described it like this: “You chew the gum, put it in the container, the container is collected, the container is thrown into a grinder, the grinded material is used to create a mold for new containers.”
These containers are already being made in Brazil, he said.
“The whole idea [is] to have these things made and hang them in a bus stop and fast food restaurant,” Simpson said. “If you have these containers around [public spaces], people will be encouraged to put the chewed gum into these containers. It cleans up the environment.”
Brought to the R&D team by Szaky, the scientists worked quickly to develop a smart solution for discarded cigarette butts, a major contributor to litter around the world.
“Cigarettes butts are fibers of various polymers that are bundled together to form the filters,” Simpson said. “We basically came up with the idea that you can separate the filter and then blend the filter with other materials and convert the structured materials into other applications.”
In six to eight months, TerraCycle created an application that would create a material to be used to make card holders, animal figurines, key chains and small toys.
The company is working with a cigarette producer, which he declined to name, to create the material. The application will be rolled out first in the United States, he said.