Sustainable design for absorbent hygiene products

Can single-use absorbent hygiene products be more sustainable? The answer is yes. Cagda Biasutti & Dr Stefanie Glathe, from Procter & Gamble explain more

The complete answer is: Yes, with intelligent eco-design applying high-performance absorbent technology and bio-sourced, recycled or recyclable materials.

Baby diapers, along with sanitary napkins and tampons, fall into the category of absorbent single-use (AHP) hygiene products. In recent years, they have been increasingly challenged in public debates on waste management, the lack of a circular material economy, resource consumption and CO2 emissions. Activists have called for the complete elimination of plastic from all AHPs and are pushing hard for reusable products. At the same time, the European Commission has been working for more than a decade at a bold pace with legislative and research framework programs for a greener economy, cumulated with the European Green Deal in 2021.

Past efforts to develop reusable or biodegradable products for the AHP sector have not always been commercially successful. Consumers regret the comfort and protection performance of single-use versions of products. In the case of menstrual protection products, hygiene considerations preclude public collection and disposal through biodegradation or recycling. Indeed, alternative products represent less than 5% of the market, despite growing interest in sustainable solutions.

Search for absorbent hygiene products

At the P&G Innovation Center in Schwalbach, Germany, research groups are improving the environmental profile of baby diapers, sanitary napkins, panty liners and tampons. EcoCare is a three-year research program (August 2019 – July 2022) to explore alternative materials and test them with consumers in demonstration products. It was preceded by a similar program, CELSTAB, during which a new, more durable, multi-layer absorbent core structure was developed. Integrated in the Horizon 2020 and LIFE+ executives, the European Commission is co-funding this research to help the consumer and the environment.

Although the detailed composition of the affected products is the property of the raw material suppliers and the manufacturing company, the general approach can be described on how to maintain performance and gain sustainability through smart design.

sanitary napkins, absorbent hygiene products
Figure 2: New diaper prototype (right) versus reference (left) showing a reduced mass product with comparable performance and protection.

Disposable diapers and sanitary napkins or panty liners mainly consist of:

  • Top and middle layers of synthetic or naturally derived materials (such as polyethylene, polyester, polypropylene, viscose and cotton).
  • An internal absorbent core of
  • cellulose fluff, with or without super-absorbent polyacrylate (SAP).
  • A waterproof bottom layer.

For general structure and components of AHP products, see references 1,2,3

The objective of reducing the environmental impacts of PHA is addressed in three areas:

  • Material reduction: Intelligently restructured distribution of fibers through the internal layers of absorbent material.
  • Integration of new materials in products: Biosourced, from renewable and recycled resources, for example, cotton, cellulose, corn, bio-SAP, bio-PE/PP films and nonwovens, and biosourced naphtha.
  • Location of suppliers (fibers from the EU).

The end goal is to achieve:

  • Reduction of raw material per AHP product by 10 to 25%.
  • Prevention of end-of-life waste of the product from 10 to 25%.
  • Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 5 to 15%, thanks to the reduction of the mass of sustainable products and materials, as well as the reduction of the landfill and transport mass.
sanitary napkins, absorbent hygiene products
Figure 1 – (Left) State-of-the-art AHP illustration and benefits. (Centre) Illustration and achievements of the CELSTAB project. (Right) Objectives of the EcoCare project.

P&G research teams analyzed and evaluated the trade-off between different materials, processes and end-of-life solutions. Product development was accompanied by extensive consumer testing for comfort and effectiveness. The final objectives achieved are verified through environmental impact assessments and/or life cycle analyzes (LCA).

The CELSTAB project has produced a more sustainable prototype for menstrual sanitary napkins. In EcoCare, additional prototypes for panty liners and baby diapers [Figure 2] could be successfully produced due to the innovative absorbent structure, reduced material input and durable.

Reach to work towards sustainability goals

Mid-term project results collected in 2021 indicate that the prototypes may have the potential to meet sustainability goals.

The EcoCare project can contribute to a more efficient management of raw material resources and the prevention of waste related to menstrual protection products and baby diapers and, therefore, to significantly reduce the amounts of AHP waste sent to incineration. and at the landfill. The end goal of ongoing research at P&G is to deliver better performing and more durable products to consumers, taking into consideration the entire product lifecycle and European infrastructure.

The references

(1) Nonwovens in Absorbent Hygiene Products (edana.org) (https://www.edana.org/nw-related-industry/nonwovens-in-daily-life/absorbent-hygiene-products)

(2) Information on the ingredients of ALWAYS & ALWAYS DISCREET tampons (https://www.always.eu/info/)

(3) Materials and Safety – What’s in our products? | Pampers (https://www.pampers.com/en-us/about-us/quality-and-safety/article/materials-and-safety)

EcoCare – Demonstration of improving the environmental impact of absorbent hygiene products using sustainable eco-technology, has received funding from the European Union’s HORIZON 2020 research program under grant agreement no. LIFE18 ENV/DE/000137 ECOCARE

Warning: This is a commercial profile

© 2019. This work is under license CC-BY-NC-ND.

from the editor advised Articles

Comments are closed.