Diaper-Recycling Looks Like Technological Success, Economic Flop

Seattle's disposable-diaper recycling experiment appears to have been a technological success and an economic failure.

Believed to be the first attempt in the nation to recycle the paper, plastic and gel in disposable diapers, the pilot project was a joint venture of Seattle's Solid Waste Utility, Rabanco Recycling Co. and Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, one of the nation's largest disposable-diaper manufacturers.

``The experimental project has shown that a technical process exists that can reclaim paper and plastic used to make diapers,'' said Dr. Nancy Eddy, project manager for Procter & Gamble Co.

But ``it appears that the costs of operating the facility for a single product such as disposable diapers will prove uneconomical,'' Eddy said.

The eight-month experiment officially is to end next Friday.

Mozell Brown, the diaper-recycling project director for the Solid Waste Utility, said the city is withholding judgment until it receives the final report on the experiment due in mid-February from Arthur D. Little Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., a consultant hired to analyze the results.

But Scott Stewart, a Procter & Gamble spokesman, said, ``The information we have from Arthur D. Little is it would appear not to be economical.''

As a recycling alternative, Stewart said his company is planning to commit $20 million to support solid-waste composting.

While conducting the Seattle experiment, Procter & Gamble also was involved in a solid-waste composting experiment in St. Cloud, Minn.

The firm that built the St. Cloud composting facility - Remco Inc. - is building a similar plant in Whatcom County scheduled for completion in the spring, Stewart said.

In Bellingham, Lisa Meucci, director of resource management for Recomp of Washington Inc., said the $8 million composting plant, capable of handling 100 tons of solid waste a day, is being built at Ferndale, 10 miles north of Bellingham.

Solid-waste composting, which includes food and yard waste, can manage up to 60 percent of what goes to landfills, Stewart said. The process is relatively unknown in the United States, where there are only about 10 such plants, Stewart said.

Seattle was chosen for the diaper-recycling test because of its reputation as a recycling leader, Stewart said.

Procter & Gamble is donating the recycling equipment, valued at about $365,000, to Rabanco, which is continuing to research ways to reclaim paper and plastics.

Don Dentz, Rabanco's project manager, said the local plant handled about 7,200 disposable diapers a day.

When the experiment was first announced, it was estimated that Procter & Gamble would put up about $750,000 for equipment, diaper pickup and other costs associated with the project.

The diapers were collected from nearly 800 families and 35 day-care centers south of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and from Providence Medical Center.

Rabanco is continuing tests with soiled-paper products, such as juice boxes, septic containers, paper plates and cartons to see if they can be cleaned and recycled for high-fiber products.

The firm also is running tests for itself and other firms on recovering plastics from milk jugs and other consumer plastics.

Dentz pointed out that the pilot project involved a small plant, not designed to produce large volumes.

It would be nice to keep the disposable-diaper recycling going, Dentz said, ``but the economics of it is not there, so we are making use of the equipment to research other materials.''

Seattle has an ordinance banning human excrement from its landfills.