Could Dirty Nappies Fuel a Car?

Friday 5th March, 2010
The scientists among you will be familiar with the law of conservation of energy - a consequence of this law is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be transformed from one state to another. You can apply a similar rule to most stuff on planet earth and, for example, when you use petrol in a car it isn't gone...it's merely transformed from one form to another. You take a fuel, composed of carbon and hydrogen (hydrocarbons) and combust them in air (oxygen). The end result of this reaction is carbon with some oxygen attached, CO2, and hydrogen with some oxygen attached, commonly known as water.

These principles apply across the board and everything you see around you is nothing more than something else that has changed form. Give a tree some CO2 and Water and it will rebuild hydrocarbons and grow more wood. That can then be used as fuel and the cycle goes round and round.

Last year, whilst waiting for the birth of our first child, the subject of nappies came up. When we were kids, parents used cotton nappies and these were boil washed and reused. Today, in total contrast, we live in a disposable world and the majority of parents turn to Pampers and other brands which allow them to simply throw dirty nappies in the bin.  Green protesters argue how dirty nappies are an environmental disaster and fill up nappies with products that take decades, even centuries, to biodegrade. Some argue that light and oxygen are required and that, without them, degrading will take even longer. Of course we know, confirmed by previous test results, that there is nothing green about domestic laundry either. You may be reusing your cotton nappy, but you're using electricity and detergent to clean it.

So, as an eco-friendly Dad, which way to turn? My answer came from the conservation principles I highlighted above. So what if nappies contain non-biodegradeable plastic? So what if they can't be fully recycled? All it consists of is a package of paper and plastic hydrocarbons. They were originally CO2 and water, one day they can be again. The majority is biodegradable and will naturally break down, the rest can be incinerated if required and the long chain polycarbons broken down into CO2 and water. This incinerator combustion also creates heat...lots of it. This can, in turn, be used to generate electricity for use in green electric vehicles or liberate hydrogen from water for fuel cell vehicles. Lots of options here and the concept of "once you make plastic, it's here forever" just doesn't work for me. Burn it, and use the electricity to power the washing machines that are washing terry nappies.

We've all heard that fossil fuels, like crude oil, are running out. Crude oil is apparently made from organic matter that lies under the earth, without light or oxygen, and is decomposed over centuries into a thick, black tar. Has anybody considered that these organic deposits might one day in the past have been nappies? ;O)

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