Babies generate new business

Forest products companies, a mainstay of our northern economy, are concerned and suffering. Market demand is low. Reducing production volume is not very feasible since it does not reduce production cost.
And now there is potential new competition from a totally unexpected source: babies.
Dirty diapers are being used to make products that also can be manufactured using wood fibre. They turn into wallpaper, roof shingles, shoe insoles, and more. It’s happening in Santa Clarita, Calif.
Ugh, you say, and of course, THAT state. But the area is especially suitable since it is prolific in children: 75 percent of Santa Clarita’s adult citizens are under age 44, and more than 150 babies are born each month.
A New York-based company that specializes in recycling absorbent hygiene products, and turning them into pulp and plastic, is managing this R&D project. Some $1.5 million (U.S.) from the state and city supports it, so it has a chance.
More important, this is not the only place it’s happening. The same New York company already has three years’ successful experience in Europe. In the Netherlands, for instance, 35,000 tons of used diapers are being processed annually from old folks as well as babies.
The plant gets income from both taking away the soiled trash and converting it into plastic and pulp. Together, that is lucrative because landfill is much more costly and unpopular in Europe than in North America.
In California and some other states in the U.S., new “green laws” are on the books. When those are passed and enacted, this and other recycling schemes will be more profitable—and more ideas will be pursued.
Is it really competition for our forest products industry? I don’t think this specific recycling application is. But there are many others.
In general, they will—and do—happen in places of high population. The urban concentrations produce waste that is costly to cart away farther and farther. But if the waste becomes a new “raw material” instead, it makes sense to manufacture new products right near the source.
Are there lessons to be learned? I think so, and they are urgent. First, “What will they think of next?” needs to become a slightly changed northern mantra: “What can WE think of and do next?”
Second, and very much related: If the north is to flourish, we need to diversify, diversify, diversify.
In my last column, I described the idea of “clustering”—developing new and related economic activities on the basis of what is already there (our forest products) and the industry that turns them into paper and building materials.
In addition, we need to do “anti-clustering”—developing profitable businesses that can thrive on an opposite market cycle to the forest products industry.
Who thought of pooped nappies as a resource? Fertile minds. We need to cultivate ours—though perhaps with cleaner ideas preferred.
Linda Wiens is a strategy and implementation consultant, workshop facilitator, president-CEO of Quetico Centre, and executive director of the Prairie Crossing Institute in Chicago.

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