MED-X, Essity and Earth Systems got together in Sale on Wednesday March 8 to show off their world-first trial of using pyrolysis technology to dispose of incontinence products, and to find out if they can be converted into commercial biochar products that’s safe to use.

Rochelle Lake leads Swedish hygiene company Essity’s Project Divert, an industry collaboration that is assessing the suitability of pyrolysis technology to dispose of incontinence products during a six-week trial funded by the National Product Stewardship Investment Fund.

The Project Divert trial, launched in January, utilises patented pyrolysis technology developed in Victoria by environmental consulting firm Earth Systems, which heats waste materials in the absence of oxygen, meaning lower emissions than traditional incineration.

The Earth Systems’ machine is known as a ‘CharMaker’, with the technology converting the waste to a biochar that may have various commercial applications.

Dr Adrien Morphett from Earth Systems introduces the CharMaker. Photos: Stefan Bradley

Biochar is a form of charcoal produced from biomass for use in soil amendment. Conversion of biomass to biochar can be a way of taking a waste material away from landfill and used as a commercial product after the pyrolysis process.

Half the landfill waste from Australia’s aged care facilities is used incontinence products; but when operators started looking for more environmentally sustainable disposal solutions, they found there were none.

Ethel Manganda and Angela Logan from Central Gippsland Health.

Essity, which manufactures and supplies the leading global brand TENA incontinence products, launched the trial to find a better way.

Speaking just outside the site of the CharMaker at the Med-X waste management facility in Sale on Wednesday, Ms Lake said that half of the incontinence waste from aged care facilities ended up in landfill.

The Earth Systems CharMaker at the MED-X site in Sale.

A residential aged care facility with 100 beds would generate 20 tonnes of incontinence waste each year.

“Our customers (aged care facilities) hate hearing that number. It’s a lot of waste,” she said.

“There is now more incontinence waste than there is nappy waste from children.”

Rochelle Lake from Essity.

Ms Lake says when customers started asking for a better solution than landfill, she and her team explored what the waste industry could offer. It turned out no one in the sector had a viable alternative.

“We’ve been in pursuit of a more sustainable option for several years. Aged care facilities are eager to contribute to a more sustainable future, and so are we,” she said.

“Currently, incontinence products including those used in aged care account for 18,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions from landfill each year, and rising.

Environmental technology specialist, Ricky Dent from Earth Systems.

“Estimates suggest the amount of absorbent hygiene product waste produced by adults could be up to 10 times that produced by infants by 2030.

“Right now, an estimated $5.6 million is spent on landfill levies each year to dispose of used incontinence products, which is a huge cost burden for stretched aged care budgets, on top of the obvious environmental concerns.”

The Project Divert trial involves 10 waste collection sites across Victoria, and will process about 16 tonnes of waste over six weeks.

Dr Adrien Morphett from Earth Systems introduced the CharMaker machine and turned it on. It soon produced the very first biochar made from incontinence waste.

A trial is underway in Sale, to see if incontinence products can be converted into commercial biochar products that are safe to use. Dr Adrien Morphett (pictured) is one of the minds behind the operation.

“We produced the char from woodchip and incontinence waste,” Dr Morphett said.

“(The blend) will probably end up (as) 70 per cent incontinence, 30 per cent woodchip. I actually don’t know. That’s the point (of the trial).

“My understanding is that using incontinence (in this way) is a world-first. We’re loving it here in Sale. We feel very welcome here.”

Med-X had provided their site for the trial.

Environmental technology specialist, Ricky Dent, from Earth Systems said the trial aims to see if the CharMaker machines can handle manufacturing waste and the incontinence products.

The very first biochar being produced from incontinence products.

“Traditionally, (the waste) goes into landfill. This (machine) can sequester a lot of the carbon out of it,” Mr Dent said.

“Assuming we pass on this small-scale (trial), we can move into a large-scale trial after that.”

Mr Dent said the biochar they’ve used from wood chips has primarily been used for the agriculture market.

“It’s a great soil conditioner. It increases the water holding capacity of the soil, and the efficacy of any fertiliser you apply,” he said.

“It saves farmers money overall. They’ll apply some of this to their land, they’ll apply less water and less fertiliser.”

Aside from agriculture, there is potential for industrial use of the biochar, including making steel, tyres, concrete, or used as a road base.

When the six-week commercial trial ends, TENA and Essity will assess the feasibility of a more permanent solution for their customers. Their customers include Wilson Lodge in Sale and Arcare Knox Aged Care in Wantirna South.

MED-X, Essity and Earth Systems got together in Sale.