By RYOMA KOMIYAMA/ Staff Writer
July 19, 2019 at 07:00 JST
OMUTA, Fukuoka Prefecture--A factory operated by Total Care System Co. draws a constant stream of visitors from across the country to see the recycling of a product that most people thought would be impossible.
The curiosity is how the company treats and recycles used disposable diapers, which are commonly thought to be discarded and incinerated.
“There is a stereotypical view that diapers contain excrement and are thus dirty so they are difficult to recycle,” said Takeshi Cho, 74, president of Total Care System. “But even diapers made by different manufacturers use the same ingredients and are typically discarded after being separated. They are the easiest article to recycle.”
Based in Fukuoka city, Total Care System started on a quest to recycle disposable diapers, as the products’ consumption rapidly increases in tandem with the aging of Japanese society. The company extracts pulp from used diapers for sale.
It is also looking to establish the technology to convert the polymer and other materials to absorb urine into sheets to deal with pets’ urine and other items.
REUSED AS VARIOUS PRODUCTS
Total Care System treats disposable diapers at its plant within an industrial park in a coastal area in Omuta, which once flourished due to its coal mine.
At the plant, used disposable diapers recovered in bags are crushed and melted in water, so that the pulp--an ingredient for paper--and water-absorbing polymer can be isolated.
Pulp is cleaned with water and an antimicrobial substance, dried and turned into sheets. The swelled polymer sodden with urine and feces is subjected to chemicals to remove water by osmotic pressure similar to slugs exposed to salt.
Fibers in pulp for diapers are long and thick, allowing the retrieved ingredient to be reused as construction material for exterior and interior walls of buildings. The polymer, the film on the diaper surface and other parts are processed for use as solid fuel.
Excrement on diapers is treated with microorganisms so as to be reused as manure.
Cho, who rented and recovered cloth diapers to and from nursing-care facilities at his corporation, established a new firm in 2001 as use of disposable diapers spread.
Working with such institutes as Fukuoka University, he developed diaper recycling technology and started operations of the plant in 2005, which can process 20 tons, or 100,000 disposable diapers, a day.
Initially only six tons of disposable diapers were taken to the factory daily, but it currently accepts 16 tons of diapers from 200 medical centers, nursing-care facilities and elsewhere in Saga, Kumamoto and other prefectures in the Kyushu region.
Disposable diapers recovered from households in Oki, Fukuoka Prefecture, close to Omuta, are also sent to the plant for processing. About 60 diaper-retrieval boxes are set up in Oki, allowing the municipal government to send 100 tons of recovered diapers to the Total Care System factory annually.
Daily sales from the diaper recycling business are around 1 million yen ($9,300). Total Care System receives commissions from agencies that send dirty diapers and sells processed pulp, helping make the business profitable.
Meanwhile, as solid fuel made from the water-absorbing polymer and other materials is handed over to an agent by paying a commission, Total Care System is developing technology to reuse the polymer as pet urine sheets and other products, not solid fuel, based on an economy ministry subsidy with an eye on generating profits from polymer recycling as well.
The business model attracts so much attention that 358 officials from private corporations, local governments and other organizations visited the plant for inspections over one year through September last year.
“I will start a campaign to spread the diaper business by making the factory a model plant that can be operated anywhere throughout Japan,” said Cho.
The growing ranks of elderly people have resulted in a surge in disposable diaper production. According to the Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association, 8.4 billion diapers for adults were made in 2018 in Japan, 3.7 billion more than the total 10 years ago.
In response to the increasing production, the Environment Ministry is devising a new policy to promote disposable diaper recycling.
Used disposable diapers contain much water. As burning those diapers in incinerators will lead to lower temperatures in them, extra fuel sometimes needs to be added to raise the incinerator temperature.
Therefore, reusing disposable diapers instead of burning them is expected to not only help reduce the consumption of timber to make paper but also reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Leading diaper maker Unicharm Corp. is proceeding with research to manufacture diapers from paper retrieved from used disposable diapers jointly with Shibushi city in Kagoshima Prefecture.
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