Our basic approach and strategy
As a manufacturer of disposable products such as diapers and sanitary products, Unicharm recognizes that the achievement of environmentally-friendly manufacturing is a vitally important issue that we cannot afford to neglect. Focusing on the utilization of paper pulp, which is made from wood, and on addressing the CO2 emissions associated with the disposal of used products by incineration, we are taking steps to realize a recycling system for diapers. By establishing a cyclical model that covers the entire product lifecycle, we are contributing towards the realization of a sustainable society that is able to maintain economic growth while also safeguarding the global environment.
Social issues recognized
・Global warming and climate change resulting from increased CO2 emissions
・Destruction of marine ecosystems by plastic waste in the oceans
・Development of disposable diaper recycling technology
・Reduction of energy consumption and waste at our business locations
・Development of environmentally-friendly products
Contributing to the realization of the SDGs
Unicharm's “Contributing to the Global Environment” activities are in conformity with the objectives of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) Goal-2 “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”, Goal-7 “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”, Goal-12 “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”, Goal-13 “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”, Goal-14 “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” and Goal-15 “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”. In the future, we will continue to leverage our company's unique strengths with the aim of making an even greater contribution towards the solving of the world's shared problems.
With regard to “Contributing to the Global Environment,” we are implementing assessment of the extent to which we have succeeded in reducing the environmental burden over the entire product lifecycle (taking FY2005 as the baseline year), positioning products that embody enhanced environmental performance as “Environmentally-Friendly Products” and taking the percentage of all our products that are “Environmentally-Friendly Products”* as a “social impact” indicator.
This percentage has been rising steadily and has now reached 89%.
*The scope of calculation is limited to Unicharm products sold in Japan (with some catalog products, OEM products and imported products excluded).
Change in the ratio of environmentally-friendly products
Disposable diaper recycling is a responsibility that Unicharm is committed to fulfilling.
With elderly people coming to account for an ever larger share of the population, production of disposable adult incontinence diapers continues to increase.
By volume, disposable diapers account for around 1/8th of total household waste. At the same time, the volume of used disposable diapers being disposed of by incineration is rising and its costs and the CO2 emissions are increasing as well. A further point is that disposable diapers are made from paper pulp which is made of wood as its raw material; rising pulp usage thus leads to the increased consumption of forest resources. Consequently, although the convenience of disposable diapers helps to make childcare and nursing care easier for many people, disposable diapers are also closely linked to various environmental issues, including the need to safeguard forest resources and the problem of global warming, etc.
The European Union (EU) has set a target of increasing the percentage of urban waste that is recycled to 65% by 2030 and steps are already being taken to recycle used disposable diapers. Unicharm too is implementing initiatives aimed at realizing improvements in terms of reducing incineration costs and CO2 emissions and achieving more efficient utilization of resources, etc. Starting in 2015, Unicharm has been implementing a project to put the recycling of used diapers on a commercial footing. As a manufacturer of disposable diapers, we feel that we have a responsibility to undertake this series of measures and we are proceeding with related technology development and verification testing.
The quantity of “plastic waste in the oceans” has been increasing steadily and, because this type of waste takes a long time to decompose, it is forecast that, by 2050, the combined weight of all the plastic waste in the sea will exceed the combined weight of all the fish living in the oceans. As a manufacturer that uses plastic in its packaging materials, Unicharm feels that it has a responsibility in this regard. With the aim of helping to address the global problem of plastic waste in the oceans, Unicharm supports the “Plastics Smart” campaign, which is being implemented in collaboration with organizations in many different sectors, and is working to reduce plastic usage at every stage from R&D onwards.
Change in the volume of CO2 emissions caused by incineration of disposable paper diapers
Initiative No. 1: Activities aimed at promoting the recycling of disposable diapers
Release of prototype products created using our own unique recycling system
Unicharm launched its used disposable diaper recycling program in 2015. Previously, Unicharm had already been recycling some used disposable diapers as Refuse Paper and Plastic Fuel(RPF). The problem was that the economic value of the RPF was low while the processing costs were quite high. Under Unicharm's new recycling project for used disposable diapers, by making recycling processing more efficient and keeping processing fees down to the same level as the cost of incineration, we have succeeded in creating a recycling system which produces recycled pulp of the same quality as pulp made from virgin material.
Unicharm's recycling-oriented model for disposable diapers
Our recycling system applies a unique ionization process to the pulp that we extract from used disposable diapers by means of cleaning and separation; the ionization process destroys the bacteria contained in the excretion. In this way, recycling is able to generate high-quality pulp that is just as hygienic and safe as virgin pulp. We also recycle the waste water generated in the cleaning and separation process, thereby making processing more efficient and also reducing the amount of waste water that needs to be discharged. In addition, we undertook collaborative research with Hiroshima University to develop technology for the generation of electricity using the purification of recycled, concentrated waste water; in 2017, Unicharm was awarded a core patent for microbial fuel cell (MFC) processing.
By 2019, four years on from the start of the project, we were able to announce the successful creation of prototype disposable diapers made from recycling material. We have also been creating a number of other prototype products made using recycled material including toilet tissue, memo pads, file folders, etc. In addition, in October 2019, “Recycling Business Preparatory Office” was established within CSR Division (now the ESG Division) with the aim of commercializing our used disposable diaper recycling technology.
Comparison of pulp made from used disposable diapers before and after ozone treatment
Implementation of verification testing in collaboration with local government authorities, to help realize large-scale recycling
In order to be able to realize the recycling of used disposable diapers, it is vitally important to arrange collaboration with local government authorities and recycling firms on the collection and recycling of used diapers. Starting in May 2016, Unicharm has been collaborating on used disposable diaper recycling system verification testing with Shibushi City, Kagoshima Prefecture. The goal is to achieve full-scale separated collection and recycling of used diapers in Shibushi City by 2020.
Aiming to build a recycling system that can be adopted widely both within and outside Japan, besides fostering collaboration with other municipalities located near Shibushi City, we are also strengthening our efforts to realize the separated collection and recycling of used disposable diapers throughout Japan.
Verifying the impact on the environment and hygienic safety
We examined from multiple aspects what actual effects employing the recycling system would have. The results showed that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted could be reduced by 87%, compared to burning used disposable diapers and creating new ones from virgin pulp. We were also able to confirm that the safety and sanitation level of recycled pulp was also maintained at a high level similar to that of virgin pulp.
Greenhouse gas emission volume
○ Greenhouse gas emission volume (compared to incineration disposal)
* Including the substitution effect from recycled product.
Bacteria count in each process
Amount of residual proteins
○ Bacteria count in each process and amount of residual proteins / Realizing the same high quality and the same level of cleanliness and whiteness as with virgin pulp made from wood
If adult diapers from 100 users are recycled over a one-year period, this would reduce the quantity of waste generated by an amount approximately equivalent to the waste contained in 23 2-ton refuse collection vehicles and would save an amount of wood equivalent to 100 trees. (Based on a survey conducted by Unicharm)
Successful implementation of SAP recycling
Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP) is an important constituent material of disposable diapers which has the function of absorbing and retaining moisture. In order to recycle used disposable diapers, the moisture absorbed by the SAP must be completely expelled and the SAP returned to a state in which it can absorb moisture again. In the past, one known method for removing moisture from SAP was to use calcium, but because this method tended to leave traces of calcium inside the SAP, leading to deterioration in diaper quality, it was not suitable for recycling.
Unicharm has been conducting research on how to return SAP to a reusable quality level in collaboration with Hokkaido University. The research results showed that if, rather than using calcium as in the past, the SAP is inactivated using an organic acid aqueous solution and neutralized, it can successfully be restored to the condition of SAP with outstanding absorbency. In verification testing, it was found that approximately 70% of the original material could be reused.
Having succeeded in developing this fundamental SAP recycling technology(for which a patent application has already been made), we are now undertaking technology development aimed at its commercialization.
An expert's view
The area of research on which I have been focusing involves studying how useful substances such as nitrogen and phosphorus can be recovered from effluent at sewage treatment plants and how they can be utilized. I first became involved in research on SAP in 2014. The technique of using calcium with SAP had been known since the 1980s, but no significant progress had been made in this area. It seems that no one had even considered the idea that used SAP could be reused.
When Unicharm got in touch with us and told us that they wanted to be able to recycle and reuse all used disposable diapers, various different possibilities presented themselves and we embarked on a process of repeated trial and error. Once we arrived at the method of treating used SAP with an organic acid aqueous solution, it seemed as though all the problems had been solved in one step.
Of course, when this technology is scaled up from the laboratory to the factory, there is the potential for all sorts of issues to arise that we in the laboratory cannot foresee, such as issues relating to product uniformity, etc. When these problems arise, we can tackle them one by one. In the future, I am looking forward to continued involvement in this very meaningful project for recycling used disposable diapers.
A responsible manager's view
Unicharm had already begun implementing recycling initiatives around 20 years ago, and since then our company has promoted a wide range of recycling-related activities. I myself was given responsibility for developing technology for recycling used disposable diapers in 2015, making use of my prior experience in materials development.
When SAP absorbs moisture, it can expand to around 40 times its original size. I must admit that I personally thought that it would probably be impossible to return used SAP to its original state and reuse it. However, with the benefit of advice etc. received from Mr. Ryusei Ito of Hokkaido University, after a process of repeated experimentation, we were able to arrive at a method that utilizes an organic acid aqueous solution.
Although we had to overcome a lot of challenges, as a researcher, being able to achieve results in a field where many people felt that “there was little hope of success” was really motivating. We have now reached a point where, in verification testing, we have achieved a SAP recycling rate of over 70%. I hope that, in the future, I will be able to continue collaborating with Mr. Ito to make it possible for all used SAP to be recycled and reused.
Initiative No. 2: Realizing the goal of “zero waste” by implementing thorough utilization and commercialization of waste
During the process of manufacturing disposable diapers, various types of waste are generated that are difficult to recycle, including product loss generated during production and the paper tubes, pulp dust and paper dust, offcuts, etc.*2 that are disposed of as waste by factories. Unicharm undertook repeated studies to determine whether these types of waste could be repurposed.
Building on the results obtained in these studies, in 2011, Unicharm launched “Deo-Sand® Scented Deodorizing Paper Litter®”, a cat excretion care product. Deo-Sand® makes effective use of the technology that Unicharm has built up through the development and manufacturing of disposable diapers to realize the efficient solidification of, and highly effective odor removal for, cat excreta, which tends to have a very strong odor. After use, this product can be disposed of as burnable waste. Subsequently, we have also been working on expanding the scope of application of this technology to include not only waste generated during the production process, but also other hard-to-recycle materials that in the past have generally been incinerated, such as used tickets and used wallpaper, etc., thereby contributing towards ongoing improvement in the effective utilization of resources.
- Based on final disposal in landfill.
- See Figure “Waste generated in the disposable diaper production process.”
Waste generated in the disposable diaper production process
Deo-Sand®Scented Deodorizing Paper Litter®
Wastes collected from Unicharm factories in and outside Japan are cut up finely together with waste paper and the polymer-based absorbent material in the diapers is separated out. The finely-cut material is solidified to create Cat Litter pellets and the colored pellets are then coated with polymer-based absorbent material and paper dust to make Deo-Sand® Paper Sand. When a pet urinates on this product, the part that was urinated on dries solid and this part (only) can then be disposed of easily as burnable waste, making this an environmentally-friendly product.
Unicharm also sorts non-woven fabric and film offcuts(trim) from factory waste and recycles this material to make plastic pellets and plastic bags. Besides reducing the amount of waste that needs to be disposed of, this strategy also helps to reduce the amount of raw material needed for plastics manufacturing.
Key social issue: Contributing to reduction in food loss through tray-mats
Japan has a low food self-sufficiency rate and is heavy dependent on imports for many types of food products. At the same time, however, huge quantities of edible food are thrown away as waste. According to statistics compiled by Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), in 2016, the total amount of unnecessary food waste in Japan was approximately 6.43 million tons. This figure is substantially higher than the amount of food aid provided each year by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) which totaled around 3.8 million tons in 2017. At the UN “Sustainable Development Summit” in 2015, a target was decided on in relation to UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Goal-12 “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” of reducing per capita global food waste by half by 2030.
With this global background, Japan's “Act on Promotion of Food Loss and Waste Reduction,” the first legislation of its kind in Japan, was enacted on May 31, 2019, and came into effect on October 1, 2019.
Unicharm has, for over 40 years now, been manufacturing and selling the tray mats on which fresh fish and meat are placed for sale in supermarkets, etc. In 2001, we launched “Fresh Master”, a new product with functionality that goes beyond acting as just an ordinary moisture absorption sheet, so that food products retain the right amount of moisture and keep their freshness and flavor. Since then, we have continued to respond to current store needs and expectations by utilizing the non-woven fabric and absorbent material processing and forming technologies that we have developed over the years to make improvements to existing products that enhance their ability to keep food fresh, while also contributing to food loss reduction and making store stocking more efficient.
Taking steps to keep perishable food fresh and extending the duration for which it can be consumed with the best possible flavor not only helps to address the various issues affecting the retail sector, it can also lead to a reduction in food loss which is a global problem. In the future, Unicharm will continue to contribute towards the realization of a sustainable society through the development of even better products in this area.