We can make money, create jobs and lift our economy through disposable diapers. Yes, those smelly diapers! The usefulness of diapers does not have to end after the baby is done with them. This is exactly what a circular economy entails. As aptly described by the European Commission, a circular economy encourages maintaining the value of products, materials, and resources for as long as possible by returning them back to the product cycle at the end of their use, and minimizing the generation of waste.
I just returned from a crush program specialization Course at the University of Copenhagen where I represented the Kenya Association of Manufacturers supported by The Danish Government. This leadership course led by Prof. Maj Anderson was about strategizing for the Green and Circular Economy. Together with me were distinguished Kenyans namely Tobias Alando, Henry Ochieng, Caroline Kungu, Fredrick Mukabi, and Victor Kenga. Our Kenyan team prepared various striking presentations on the circular economy one of which focused on an innovative approach toward disposable diaper management.
At the heart of this presentation, we shared critical circular economy insights that can change the way Kenyans relate to disposable diapers as we create jobs.
Let me emphasize that the circular economy approach is a very profitable one. According to a study by McKinsey, by 2030 circular economy could boost Europe’s resource productivity by 3 percent. This will save Europe Sh73.6 Trillion per year and Trillions more in additional economic benefits. What is true for Europe is true for Kenya.
Child Population in Kenya is 53%. That is anticipated, considering that Kenya sees an average of 5,500 births daily. Reportedly, the average baby uses as many as 7,000 diapers in their lifetime. Consequently, there is a mountain of disposable diapers accumulating in our landfills daily. Globally, 20 billion diapers are estimated to end up in landfills annually. Millions of others are incinerated. Neither of this waste management options is sustainable. Land filling results in an array of problems like water pollution, odor and methane emissions. On its part, incineration uses a lot of energy and releases harmful gases into the atmosphere. That’s why we need a different approach.
This year, the global diaper market is predicted to exceed Sh8.2 Trillion. However, these staggering profits come at a huge cost to the environment. This is particularly true for Kenya because we are already struggling with solid waste management. According to the Ministry of Environment, Kenya produces about 8 million tons of waste annually. Reportedly, 800 million diapers are cast-off in Kenya annually. Since these diapers take about 400 years to decompose, we must deploy social innovation in tackling this challenge starting with a practical partnership with the initial producers to create a collection chain leading to upcycling.
Disposable diapers contain fiber that can be harvested and channeled into multiple uses. The starting point towards this is a reward system for the collection and delivery of materials from the households to a processing center. This fiber will then be used to produce a variety of products including reinforced concrete, shopping bags, or even furnace for factories as the technology possibilities advance. Therein lies the jobs.
Considering that Kenya’s construction sector is a multi-million shilling industry, inserting diaper fibers into the construction value chain will go a long way in completing the circular economy of diapers.
Against this backdrop, it is evident that we can infuse value into used disposable diapers. Training of youth will lead to the elimination of existing curtails in this sector and a systemic change in our waste management, especially as regards disposable diapers. The county government should institute symbiotic Public-Private Partnerships for the collection, sorting, and transporting of diapers to processing plants. Before that can even happen, these plants must be set up through the same partnerships.
Even more important than these critical actions should be a circular economy uprising amongst ordinary Kenyans. If fifty million Kenyans begin embracing waste and finding ways of infusing it into its value, we will replenish not just our environment, but our economy. Think green, Act green.