Over coffee, mums in Christchurch, New Zealand, debated an age-old question. How exactly do you square concern for the environment with the avalanche of nappies that explode into the lives of parents with small children? It was agreed that there was no easy answer. Studies comparing reusable, washable nappies with disposables were inconclusive about which was the more environmentally sound.

But for one mum, just sitting around moaning about it wasn’t an option. And with typical Kiwi gusto she took on the challenge. “I got sick of going to coffee groups where everyone would complain. I am a doer so I decided to do something about it,” says Karen Upston, who co-founded nappy composter Envirocomp with her husband Karl. “I just hopped on the internet and did some research. It was a case of someone putting it together and doing some investigative work.”

She makes it sound like a walk in the park. But the couple, who have two young children, had to put their house up as collateral and borrow from private investors as – mid recession – the banks were not lending.

Envirocomp is possibly the first company in the world to compost nappies. So, even working with composting expert HotRot Organic Solutions, it was still a nail-biting venture. “It was something that HotRot were already looking at but they couldn’t find anyone crazy enough to partner with,” she says.

Using HotRot’s prototype composting unit, Karen and Karl set up a composting trial for absorbent hygiene products (AHPs). The media publicised it and families started queuing up to get involved. “In the end we had to turn people away,” she says. In total more than 200 families took part plus six pre-schools, a local maternity hospital, elderly residents, and a learning disability charity.

During the five-month trial in 2007 around 450,000 nappies and other products – or 56 tonnes – were composted. Envirocomp then attracted investment from nappy brand Huggies and support from the New Zealand government. In 2009 it set up a commercial composting facility in North Canterbury, costing in the region of $1M NZD. A second facility is due to open in Wellington early next year.

Envirocomp caught the eye of OCS, which owns Cannon Hygiene and provides a collection and disposal service for AHPs from commercial clients. Cecil Ryan, OCS regional managing director Europe, describes the Upston’s story as “phenomenal”.

But from his company’s point of view, he adds: “There’s never really been an alternative to sending that waste to landfill and it’s something that we have been concerned about.”

OCS trialled some of its own waste with Envirocomp before snapping up the company in February for an undisclosed sum. “It’s a very good fit and it provided the solution we were looking for,” says Ryan. “Karen is real visionary and much of her decision to sell to ourselves was her belief that we could take this technology around the world.

“Our ambition is to roll the process out, as quickly as possible in all the countries where Cannon operates. Between 2-3% of landfill are nappies and as more waste is diverted that percentage can only get higher.”

The largest Cannon Hygiene operation is in the UK, making it the obvious home for the first Envirocomp facility outside of New Zealand. OCS/Cannon Hygiene is working with the Environment Agency to find a suitable site.

The first plant is due to open next year and will process around 12,000 tonnes annually. The plan is to build 10 more within the next five to 10 years. “We want to achieve nationwide cover,” says Andy Band, Envirocomp director. “We are looking to establish natural coverage in line with our Cannon Hygiene business. It will depend on scalability and uptake.”

In New Zealand, Envirocomp collects waste from households so the UK model is different. But OCS/Cannon Hygiene has not ruled out offering this service to local authorities. The nappies are first shredded and then composted over 14 to 16 days using HotRot’s in-vessel composting technology. The plastics are removed from the resulting material and fed into EfW applications. The resulting organic matter is pathogen free and can be used in non-food agricultural and horticultural projects.

So it is developing end markets for this process that will determine the success of the project. “You have to be able to close the loop, do something with the output to make it a beneficial process,” says Jeremy Jacobs, managing director of the Association for Organics Recycling. “Although, taking anything out of landfill is clearly excellent news because of the environmental impact.”

With 600,000 tonnes of AHP waste produced each year in the UK alone, all previously going to landfill, there’s more than enough to deal with. As Band says: “Anything that promotes the environmental agenda is to be welcomed.”

Meanwhile, Karen Upston, who continues to work for Envirocamp, finally admits that it has not been an “easy ride” but says the “sleepless nights” have been worth it.

Katie Coyne is a freelance journalist

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