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Diaper Recycling in California

By Josh Dunn

While it’s quite an exaggeration to say that every bad idea comes out of California, one unbelievably foolish idea, diaper recycling, has recently been enacted into law in one California city. The Santa Clarita, California municipal government has instituted a mandatory diaper recycling program in which garbage collectors gather bags of discarded diapers and transport them to a recycling plant modeled after a facility in Arnhem, the Netherlands, which has been in operation since 1999.

Knowaste, the industry leader in diaper recycling, successfully lobbied Santa Clarita politicians to have a pilot program and then the current citywide program instituted. In both cases, Knowaste’s lobbying campaign gained it an exclusive contract in which all of the diapers collected in Santa Clarita are processed in Knowaste’s facility. Knowaste had previously expended $282,000 in a failed effort to have mandatory diaper recycling implemented throughout California. When taxes are excluded, lobbying and campaign contributions account for the majority of Knowaste’s expenses.

In a pilot program that began in November, the Santa Clarita government passed an ordinance which compelled residents in preselected areas of the city to place discarded diapers in plastic bags and place them outside for recycling; during the 6 month pilot program, residents in other areas of Santa Clarita did not recycle diapers. In May, when the pilot program was complete, the municipal government implemented the diaper recycling ordinance that is binding on all 143,000 of the city’s residents. During the pilot phase, Knowaste spent $20,000 on propaganda designed to raise popular support for diaper recycling in Santa Clarita.

A municipal press release issued during the pilot phase states that the pilot program was free to the approximately 500 families living in the designated area, but then goes on to explain that it was financed with $500,000 of government money, half of which came from the municipality and half of which is a state grant Gov. Gray Davis included in the 2000-2001 budget. The $250,000 state expenditure came early in the California government’s budget crisis. Because government money ultimately comes from taxpayers, the pilot program participants, along with their fellow Santa Clarita and California taxpayers, really do pay for the program, despite the fact that Santa Clarita’s elected officials are too beholden to Knowaste to allow municipal agencies to openly make this connection. Blue Barrel Recycling also contributed money to the pilot program, but government money played a key role.

Diaper recycling at a Knowaste plant begins with batch processing, an automated procedure in which machines shred and pulp the diapers, deactivate the super absorbent polymers (SAPs), sanitize the material, and separate the plastics. During the initial batch processing cycle, heated water is constantly added to and extracted from the batch processor, removing the deactivated SAPs, fiber, and waste. After the initial cycle is complete, the plastic is removed and pelletized. The remaining material is screened and cleaned, and the resulting pulp is thickened. The water used during batch processing is placed in a dissolved air flotation (DAF) tank and reused at the facility. Material from the DAF is combined with the waste removed when the sludge is screened and cleaned before thickening; these waste products are then pelletized. To comply with the conditions of its permit for the Santa Clarita plant, Knowaste discards the waste pellets into the municipal sewer system. Various other waste products are ultimately disposed of in landfills. Knowaste estimates that the Santa Clarita program will require 1.7 million gallons of water per year.

According to Knowaste, water accounts for 55% of the material yielded by the diaper recycling process, and virtually all of the remaining 45% is fit for industrial or agricultural uses. Only about 1% of the recycled material from the Santa Clarita facility is actually used. The company blames this on poor economies of scale, but in addition to failing to openly acknowledge that a large portion of the material ultimately enters Santa Clarita’s sewer systems, Knowaste refuses to admit that it faces an additional barrier: Low demand. Many officers and purchasers at corporations that use recycled material worry that use of recycled diapers is unsanitary, or simply find the entire idea disgusting. Even those who can stomach the idea of using the material know that demand for their products will drop if consumers learn that shoes and other products contain the remains of diapers. Rent seeking has allowed Knowaste to survive and thrive by supplying a larger quantity of recycled diaper than is demanded.

On the basis of volume, disposable diapers account for an estimated 0.5%-2% of the garbage stored in landfills. Santa Clarita city council member Laurene Weste argues diaper recycling is necessary because disposable diapers one baby uses throughout his infancy contain the wood-product equivalent of 20-25 trees. 20-25 trees may seem like a lot to some environmentalists, but it must be kept in mind that trees are a renewable agricultural resource. The main difference between trees and any other crop is that trees require years or even decades before they are ready to be harvested, whereas food crops are generally ready for harvest in less than a year. International paper and other timber producers routinely replant a sufficient number of trees to replace what they remove from company land.

The Santa Clarita program cost $1800 per ton of diapers collected and processed, far in excess of Knowaste’s estimate of $60 per ton. $1800 per ton is approximately $.30 per diaper. It costs approximately $28 to discard one ton of trash in a landfill.

The inefficiency of the Santa Clarita program may be extreme, but it is hardly unique. Recycling of office paper and copper goods are less expensive than use of their nonrecycled alternatives, but recycling of other goods is more expensive. Were it not for laws establishing minimum percentages of recycled paper in newspapers, demand for recycled paper would be considerably lower. Aluminum soda can recycling was less expensive than first-use aluminum in the past, but in recent years the costs of factors of production have changed, and this is no longer the case.

If the cost of recycling a waste product is more expensive than simply throwing away the waste product and using original raw materials in manufacturing instead of the recycled material, it is an indication that recycling the waste product in question is a waste of resources. The law of supply and demand dictates that as a resource is depleted, its price increases. The price increase induces resource users to conserve the resource more effectively, search for alternatives, step up efforts to discover other sources of the resource that is becoming more scarce, and reduce production of goods for which the resource is a factor of production. This holds true both for natural resources, such as petroleum, water, and wood, and for human resources, namely labor. If a baby uses six diapers per day for the first two years of life, diaper recycling would cost $1314 if recycling a costs $.30 per diaper. If Santa Clarita’s residents are once again able to throw away used diapers, they would be able to spend the money they are now losing to the higher taxes required to maintain the diaper recycling program. Those who choose to do so could spend the money helping to replace the 20-25 trees required to supply a baby with diapers throughout his infancy. Even after adjusting for trees that fail to reach maturity, it costs far less than $1314 to replace 25 trees.

If Santa Clarita voters take the time to the implications of the diaper recycling program, Knowaste’s lobbyists will find themselves dealing with new City Councilmen after the next election. If citizens elsewhere are mindful of supply and demand they will not be duped into accepting nanny state mandatory recycling of diapers or any other waste product.