The Comfort Loop: A systems approach for sustainable absorbent hygiene products

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Mechanical Engineering


Absorbent Hygiene Products (AHPs) are typically disposable products widely used in homes, hospitals, care homes across the UK and worldwide. The UN reported that disposable nappies are one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste globally [1]. AHPs represent on average 8-11% of the residual MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) of countries globally, equating to millions of tonnes of plastic waste [2]. The current global nappy market exceeds US$71 billion fuelled by high birth rates from population increase. In countries like the UK where nappy consumption is stable, aging populations are driving increasing consumption of adult incontinence products in the community, hospitals and care homes [1]. Disposable period products have a similar composition to nappies and incontinence products and are also a significant driver of plastic waste [3]. Reusable products exist in the UK in all product categories, while they have significant environmental impacts of their own [4], LCAs show that they create less plastic waste. However, they are a small proportion of the market. Reduce strategies, such as continence training, or the use of wetness sensors to reduce the need for the incontinence products are available but they have not been widely adopted. Separate collections for period product waste are provided in offices (by law) but these are sent for incineration or landfill. There is no reciprocal law for collecting AHPs in men's toilets, and yet 11% of working men aged between 60-64 use incontinence pads. As a result of the increase in flushing this product type (and wipes) there is increased blockages in sewage systems as well environmental contamination. Thus, the picture in the UK, which is reflected globally, is of a plastic waste stream out of control: fragmented into many product types and disposal routes, none of which form a coherent system that can be sustainably optimised. In this project we will build on our preliminary work and extensive partnerships to undertake the fundamental research to design a sustainable AHP system for the UK.

[1] UNEP (2021). Single-use nappies and their alternatives: Recommendations from Life Cycle Assessments.
[2] Velasco Perez et al. (2021). Waste management and environmental impact of absorbent hygiene products: A review.
[3] Zero Waste Europe (2019). The Environmental & Economic Costs of Single-use Menstrual Products, baby Nappies & Wet Wipes: Investigating the impact of these single-use items across Europe.;
[4] UK Government (2005) Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK.


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