New nappy can be put down drain: Firm claims biodegradable first

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The Independent Online
A three-strong team of entrepreneurs has developed a flushable, biodegradable nappy which they believe is an environmentally benign first.

Film Technology, of Mundford in Norfolk, says that its new range of nappies - called Harmonies - will be available in the new year.

In Britain, 3 billion disposable nappies are used every year, creating an estimated 70,000 tons of waste. In the United States, the number is 18 billion; world-wide the figure is about 40 billion. On average, throw-away nappies constitute about 1 per cent of the content of landfill sites.

The new process could also be used to produce sanitary towels that are safe to flush, another huge potential market which Malcolm Brown, managing director of Film Technology, hopes to expand into later. 'Our nappies are closest to launch,' he said yesterday.

The problem with existing disposable nappies is that although the cellulose that forms their bulk will degrade, their plastic coatings do not breakdown so easily. The outer layer of the new nappies is made from a biodegradable film, called 'B9', which replaces these plastic coatings.

The film is a mesh rather like a fishing net where the 'holes' are water-soluble areas made of polyvinylalcohol - the only polymer known to dissolve in water. Another biodegradable polymer - polycaprolacton - forms the 'netting' that supports the soluble patches.

Sandwiched between this outer film and the 'stuffing' of the nappy is a very thin waterproof membrane, which protects the B9 film from falling apart when the baby urinates. When the nappy is flushed away, the film comes into contact with a far larger volume of water and the nappy collapses into a 'slurry', that passes through the sewage system. This is degraded by the usual mix of bacterial and chemical breakdown.

Mr Brown has his sights set on the US market and already refers to his product as 'diapers'. The British market is worth about pounds 350m, so were his company to capture only a small share it could expect an annual turnover above pounds 10m.

He formed Film Technology just three years ago, when he left his job with a surface coatings company to pursue his idea for the disposable film. He has received about pounds 123,000 in development grants from the Department of Trade and Industry. 'People have tried to produce a biodegradable nappy by introducing degradable elements that break down into small clumps. Others have tried to find a way to break down nappies once they arrive at a tip,' Mr Brown said. 'Ours is a totally different approach which is novel because you wouldn't normally think pf putting a water-soluble film on the back of a nappy.'

Mr Brown said that South West Water had monitored his project and was happy for the nappies to be flushed down a toilet. The company has not developed a disposable 'nappy sack' yet, although it believes this is technically feasible. It has raised just under pounds 300,000 to develop its nappies, including pounds 50,000 needed to file world-wide patents, which are expected shortly.