Baby steps toward zero-waste cities – yes, we can!

Here’s a heart-stopping fact: each disposable diaper, often wrapped up in more plastic and hurled into the garbage, takes more than 500 years to decompose.

REUSABLE DIAPERS feature snap closures, as well as durable non-stick fabric that can be washed with the rest of the laundry (photo credit: COURTESY CHARLIE BANANA)
REUSABLE DIAPERS feature snap closures, as well as durable non-stick fabric that can be washed with the rest of the laundry
We hear babies cry, and watch them grow. They’ll learn much more than we’ll ever know... and we think to ourselves: what a wonderful world. But, actually, those cute, squeezable, heart-melting bundles are fouling up our planet faster than the time it takes to flush a toilet. Babies are little poop-producing factories – generating a ton of toxic waste each by the age of two.
Here’s a heart-stopping fact: each disposable diaper, often wrapped up in more plastic and hurled into the garbage, takes more than 500 years to decompose. Your great-grandchild’s great-great-grandchildren, to the 20th generation, will be traveling to Mars for afternoon tea, while your soiled diaper will still be stinking in some landfill in the Negev. Crazy, no?
There is nothing positive that can be done with diapers – no recycling known to man can compost toxic chemicals and plastic and send them back into circulation. They have to be buried in the ground. In Kfar Saba, for example, with some 3,500 “bonny babes” under the age of two, this means some 10 million nappies a year clogging up our land. Multiply that by the whole country, never mind the entire world, and your mind shuts down.
And such an environmental catastrophe is before we factor in the carbon footprint of producing the diapers, as well as shipping them to Israel. Moreover, that’s before the petrol and pollution from trucks transporting the 42,500 soiled plastic packages per day to landfills way down south. (That’s more than 42,000 nappies every day from Kfar Saba alone, in case you missed it.)
There is a solution. Tal Peled, head of innovation and development in the Kfar Saba Sustainability Department, and a young mother herself, is currently introducing a planet-saving plan for Kfar Saba, which already prides itself on being Israel’s greenest city. A current campaign has municipal billboards and social media inviting all families with babies to collect their free gift: three colorful, cute, reusable diapers which will save them money, and ease up on the environment.
“We know that many people feel lazy about dealing with waste,” says Peled, “and would rather not think about the impact on the environment. But we hope that when they see how easy it is to use these diapers, they will be converted. And even if only 5% of the population uses them once or twice a day, that’s already tons of waste prevented a year – a huge difference.”
“Easy” is a big word for any of the chores related to child-rearing. But reusable diapers have evolved a lot since the days when our grandmas boiled cloth squares in pots. Today the fabric is nonstick. Waste can be tipped easily into the toilet and flushed away, together with a thin (optional, cheap) paper lining made from bamboo or hemp. Chuck the diaper into the washing machine with the rest of the clothes; it’s safe and sanitary. Then hang it up or machine-dry it – either way the diapers are durable and come up fresh and ready to be used over and over and over again… even for the next siblings!
After factoring in detergents, water and electricity for washing, reusable diapers can save a family some NIS 3,000 per year. They are made from natural fibers which means that nappy-rashes are not nearly as common with babies swaddled in organic cotton or polyester as they are with little ones in plastic diapers. So that’s another saving. It also means you have fewer diaper creams to buy and you are not clogging up our subterranean spaces with your baby’s plastic diapers for the next half millennium.
Kfar Saba, a successful city some 20 minutes from Tel Aviv with 107,000 residents, has been promoting “zero-waste” for the past year. Itay Tsachar, vice general manager of the “Green City” of Kfar Saba, explains that zero waste is a mind-set: no garbage and no wastefulness. The city has found advocates around the world. For example, when an international delegation recently visited the city, Tsachar explains, representatives from Africa said the concept of “waste” was foreign to them, as poverty-stricken people don’t throw away out-of-fashion clothes, or disposable toys and computer screens.
In Israel, however, bins overflow with food and toys and out-of-date electronic devices. Dealing with trash is a big part of any municipal budget. About half the entire maintenance costs of a city goes to waste treatment (NIS 50 million, for instance, in Kfar Saba alone).
According to Tsachar, Kfar Saba already recycles 40% of all garbage – possibly the highest percentage in Israel. Most of the city’s garden waste, for example, is treated and turned into compact chips that are spread over public spaces to prevent evaporation and stop weeds. Old computer screens are recycled and broken down into their original components, which are all reused. Some 30% of all household waste is organic. The city provides each family with a special brown bin for such waste. Furthermore, the municipality is currently involved in a pilot scheme to turn this waste into electricity and compost, a huge saving for the budget.
“Normal waste is sent by trucks to salting stations,” Tsachar says, “and in addition to this expense, the government slaps a tax on all municipal waste.” Recycling is not only crucial to sustainability, he explains, it also means that more of the municipal budget can be spent on education and welfare, for example.
Certainly, there is a long way to go. Ella Danon, head of the Sustainability Department, says that only 20% of Kfar Saba’s citizens make the effort to put their banana peels in the brown bin. But she is optimistic.
“Even separating a fifth of our organic waste is very significant,” she says. “We are now going out to our citizens to try to convince them that waste can be a resource.”
The trick, she maintains, is to change minds. What seems like magic – take something stinky and chuck it into a waste container, never to be seen again – is not magic at all.
“Garbage disposal is expensive and bad for our environment,” she adds.
Kfar Saba, according to Tsachar, is the only city in Israel (and possibly the world) that does not use chemical sprays against weeds. Now it is the first city in the world to promote reusable diapers. The city already has Step 2 of the campaign lined up: reusable sanitary products for women. Tampons and pads are expensive, not optimal for health, and clog up rivers and landfills. “But I’m not sure the public is ready for that quite yet,” says Danon, with a smile. “One step at a time.”
In the meantime, it’s baby steps for Kfar Saba, which could translate into giant steps for the planet.