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Adult incontinence pads emerging as worse waste problem than baby nappies


Sharlene King, media office at Southern Cross University
20 October 2022

Adult incontinence products are a far bigger waste problem than baby nappies, with the situation expected to get worse due to an ageing population according to a new Southern Cross University study.

Nearly all used disposable nappies are sent to landfill, a final resting place where the materials – even for those brands marketed as biodegradable or compostable – will produce significant environmental pollution in the form of greenhouse gases and leachate (water) emissions.

The study, involving The University of Queensland and published in the journal Waste Management, found that by 2030 waste from absorbent hygiene products (AHP) generated by adults will outnumber that produced by infants by between four and 10 times.

Used disposable baby nappies (credit Shutterstock).

Lead author and environmental engineer Dr Emma Thompson Brewster of Southern Cross University said while more AHP brands are presenting environmental-friendly marketing in Australia, all are sidestepping the elephant in the room.

“The burden on parents to choose the ‘best’ nappy product for their infants places unnecessary stress on many Australian parents, at a time while they are already experiencing the many stresses of raising small children. Used adult absorbent hygiene products (AHPs) receive far less public attention, but have comparable or greater impact on our community health, environmental health and taxpayers,” said Dr Thompson Brewster.

The research showed that while the waste from infant nappies will likely remain constant over the next decade, the waste from used AHPs will increase.

“This is due to the nation’s ageing population and associated age-related health conditions. While our expertise is on the waste management side of the problem, the trend highlights the heavily stigmatised issue of incontinence in the over-65 years population, which may have better solutions related to improved access to medical treatment like physiotherapy,” Dr Thompson Brewster said.

An adult incontinence product (credit Shutterstock).

Designed to contain human excreta (urine and faeces), AHPs for adults and babies are generally made of a combination of natural fibres, plastics, glues, and synthetic absorbent materials. 

University of Queensland’s Professor Kate O’Brien has been investigating the environmental lifecycle of baby nappies for more than a decade.

“There’s lots of discussion about the environmental impact of babies’ nappies, but our study shows that adult absorbent hygiene products presents a larger and faster growing waste issue,” Professor O’Brien said.

“This study is about opening-up the conversation to how we can better manage waste and consider other solutions going forward.”

Study details

‘Adult incontinence products are a larger and faster growing waste issue than disposable infant nappies (diapers) in Australia’ by Emma Thompson Brewster, Beth Rounsefell, Fangzhou Lin, William Clarke, Katherine R O'Brien.

Published in Waste Management journal


Lean more

Read article in The Conversation: Right now, more adult incontinence products than baby nappies go to landfill. By 2030, it could be ten times higher