Israeli nanotech start-up Cine’al recently announced something of a novel innovation in Super Absorbent Polymers (SAP), namely Hydromash a super absorber made from jellyfish. The company claims Hyrdromash to be both extremely absorbent and highly degradable, allowing it to break down within just 30 days in aerobic conditions. With the race on to produce the first mainstream fully degradable diaper, the advent of another degradable polymer is good news for the industry and may in itself have wider benefits than simply being ‘green’.
Hygiene Growth Blooms
Globally, volume sales of hygiene products continue to show significant growth potential, with diapers in particular likely to break the 200 million unit mark before 2020. Rapid growth has been driven by growing disposable incomes across developing markets, China alone will account for more than a quarter of this growth. While growth is good news for the industry, the disposal of such a large number of diapers will continue to be a strain, especially in markets where waste disposal services are far less developed than is the case in the West, for example.
One could also argue that the long term future growth of the industry development through South Asia is essential, but also a region where disposable products are still abhorrent to cultures where recycling and reusing is king, fully degradable diapers could be a spur to category development. At least anecdotally diapers are one of few items waste pickers won’t go near, an indication that disposable hygiene products sit outside established norms for many developing societies. Rapidly degradable diapers, of the sort Hydromash hints at may help to bridge this gap, making ‘disposables’ into ‘degradables’.
Jellyfish: A Resource?
While there is a strong argument for degradable components in general, jellyfish also offer other advantages. The burgeoning numbers of jellyfish in our seas are affecting the tourism and fishing industries, and have even shut down a Swedish nuclear plant, due to jellyfish blocking its water inlet. Jellyfish are fast becoming a hazard, and with climate change, this problem is unlikely to stop.
There are also examples from other industries where somewhat hazardous material has been turned into useful resource. In home care, for example, Ecover pays fishermen to retrieve the plastic they catch in their nets to feed into recycled bottles. If comparable strategies were employed globally, this could perhaps make a dent in what Greenpeace describes as the ocean’s ‘trash vortex’.
Big Brand Involvement
Broadening feedstock for super absorbent polymers (SAP) may also help relieve some of the price pressure experienced by the hygiene industry of late, as prices increased by 3% in the US between February 2013 and February 2014, for example. The applicability of jellyfish-based SAP almost sounds too good to be true, but consumer reaction could be less than positive - would consumers be happy to use nappy/diapers or sanitary protection made from marine life?
While products derived from jellyfish may not be to every consumers taste, for the wider public, efficacy and affordability is key, and the allure of biodegradable diapers is strong enough to take a 5% share of the UK nappy/diaper category for example. This does suggest that biodegradability in hygiene products still offers potential in both the developed and developing world but perhaps more than the ingredients the future of green diapers requires big brand backing to force a sea change.