Turning dirty diapers into . . . bicycle helmets?

Consider the disposable diaper. It's part engineering marvel, a mechanism that takes one of the most foul side effects of parenthood and absorbs it into a small, manageable, plastic-wrapped package. But it's also part environmental catastrophe.

The average baby makes nearly 6,000 diapers dirty before becoming bathroom-trained. Waste watchers estimate that 27.4 billion disposable diapers are discarded each year in the U.S., adding as much as 3.4 million tons to dumps annually.

And that's not all. Each disposable diaper contains plastics and, in many cases, toxic chemical residues that show up in paper products, such as the chlorine used to make those diapers lily white.

And to make the absorbent pulp that soaks up what babies produce so copiously, consumer product companies whack down pristine forests, eliminating their ability to suck up the carbon dioxide that's heating the atmosphere. Since some of these soft-fibered trees required for diapers come from boreal forests in Canada and Siberia that are responsible for 20% of the globe's carbon absorption, getting rid of these smelly packages conveniently could be contributing mightily to the ultimate inconvenient truth.

Big Plans for the U.K.

A Canadian company called, fittingly, Knowaste, is trying to tackle this filthy problem. It's building recycling facilities that break down dirty disposables into separate components that can either be recycled for other uses or burned for power generation.

Knowaste is teaming up with energy-plant builder Versus to construct a facility near Birmingham, England, says CleanTechnica. The company already has a recycling facility in Canada and recently announced plans to open five more in the U.K. The five plants will collectively recycle 180,000 tons of disposable diapers per year, or almost 25% of the U.K.'s total annual disposable diaper waste stream.

The process is somewhat complex. Soiled diapers are "...washed, sanitized, deactivated and mechanically separated into plastic components or organic residue. A special chemical treatment is used to deactivate the polymers," according to the Knowaste website. Plastics are then removed, cleaned again and compressed into small pellets that can be later used for vinyl siding, bicycle helmets and roofing tiles, among other uses.

Paper that's extracted can be used for recycled paper products. The remaining waste is dried and then burned to create energy to power the plant and to feed back into the power grid. The plant reuses all the water used in the process.

Resistant to Recycling

Reducing the amount of waste that needs to go into the ground is growing ever-more important, as landfills continue to top off and resistance to building new ones remains high. Some municipalities handle solid waste by igniting it and using the heat to turn steam generators.

But the wetter the waste, the more expensive it is to heat up sufficiently to allow for combustion. Other companies, including PMC BioTec in Exton, Pa., have technologies that can take the ugliest parts of the waste stream -- human waste and sewage -- and mix it with chemicals or bacteria to produce heat and power with minimal dangerous byproducts. But complex waste such as diapers, which contain plastics, polymers, paper, water and organic human waste, have proven particularly resistant to recycling.

Which is why the Knowaste project is so promising. The company already has plants in Canada and the Netherlands. Its ultimate goal is to divert 4% of total materials going to the dump in its target countries. Aside from baby diapers, the proposed U.K. plants will also recycle feminine hygiene products and adult diapers.

If Knowaste manages to prove it can make money by cleaning up, then it will likely set its sites on the big Kahuna of all diaper markets: the U.S., where parents toss out more disposables per capita than anywhere else on Earth. Recycling all that should be one dirty job indeed.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at alex@dailyfinance.com.

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