diapers, a report from the Environmental Protection Agency found that our nation adds a whopping 20 billion disposable diapers to landfills each year, amounting to 3.5 million tons of waste. That waste, the report found, takes half a millennium to fully degrade; while degrading, it releases toxic chemicals into the air we breathe.
Kim and Jason Graham-Nye, the cofounders of GDiapers, think their product is a big part of the solution to this problem. In 2005, the founders launched their “hybrid diaper” — the world’s first “cradle to cradle” certified disposable diaper insert.
As part of our series amplifying solutions for a more Circular Economy, we spoke to the Graham-Nyes about their innovative product, why it’s so hard to bring circular solutions into a linear world, and the opportunities that circularity creates. This is what they had to say.
NationSwell: Tell me about how your company was founded.
Kim Graham-Nye, Co-Founder of GDiapers: 19 years ago, we were pregnant with our first child. While we were preparing, we read an article that said one disposable diaper takes 500 years to biodegrade. And in the same breath, it mentioned that 50 million diapers were going to landfills each day in the United States since 1970. And that’s just one country! Globally, the number is up to 300,000 a minute.
That’s the waste from just one type of product, used by 5% of the population for what’s usually 3 to 4 hours at a time. It’s a problem hidden in plain sight: one baby, five thousand diapers a year. People don’t really think about that! We talk about coffee cups when we talk about waste, but nothing really compares to diapers. It’s just not sustainable. Every parent needs them, so why isn’t anybody doing anything? Why are the only options cloth or disposable? How can you have a category that has only two choices within something that’s such a big industry?
So we got really excited about it, and we tried to research and find alternatives — but we couldn’t find anything at all, anywhere in the world. And so we initially left it there, thinking, it was possibly a really great business, but maybe not for us. We thought, we’re not chemical engineers, we’re not product engineers, we’re not designers, and we’re not into consumer manufacturing. None of that is our space, but this is a brilliant idea for somebody else — a hole in the market for somebody to create a better diaper. But then, after I was pregnant, I had to wear a diaper, which some parents who give birth do, even if we don’t really talk about it publicly. And the disposable diaper my husband brought home for me was plastic. It didn’t breathe. And it was becoming summer, so the heat of it was gross on so many levels.
And I thought to myself, “If every parent had to wear a disposable diaper, that would be the end of the category overnight.”
So suddenly, we became obsessed with the idea of making a better diaper. Eventually, at a trade show for baby products, we met an inventor, a woman who had made these compostable and actually flushable pads that went inside these really cute cotton washable pants. And we partnered with her. We ultimately launched in the US on November 29th, 2005 at Whole Foods.
Jason Graham-Nye, Co-Founder of GDiapers: My background is as a Japanese interpreter. I had worked in the stock market in Japan, out of university, and made a lot of money, but there was no meaning. And then I switched into teaching, and I found a lot of meaning in my work — but no money. Then I met Kim, and Kim had kind of a similar journey where she was working for the U.N. in Zanzibar doing HIV/AIDS research, the other pandemic. And then that made a lot of meaning, but not much money. And then she came to Australia and built a really successful business financially. It was very financially rewarding, but not much meaning. So our whole life has been about asking the question of how you find meaning and money from the same venture.
And we realized that we could do that with — of all things — diapers. But we didn’t have a consumer goods background. We didn’t spin out of Proctor and Gamble. We didn’t spin out of Kimberly-Clark. So the insanity of moving 10,000 miles to America with a baby, pregnant with another one, to fundraise. It’s been a trip.
NationSwell: What were some of the challenges to creating a product with circularity in mind, as opposed to a more linear model?
Jason: In the beginning we were asking moms to change their behavior. 95% of moms in America use disposable diapers, which have almost zero commitment. You just buy it, use it, throw it, that’s it. It’s classic: Take and make waste. There’s maybe no better example of the linear model than diapers. And so, to introduce a product that was a hybrid and outer pad, that you had to wash, and then there was this insert, and you had to get the fit right. That’s hard. I’m a third of the way through a Ph.D. in Circular Economics, looking at the barriers and enablers of a circular diaper solution in the developed and developing world.
So in my literature review, what we find is 114 definitions of circularity. And we go from three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle — to 10 Rs: refuse, rethink, reduce, reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, repurpose, recycle, recover.
And that row, the last two, recover, recycle, is the least circular. It’s mostly linear. And what we’re finding with big companies, and it’s understandable, is the focus is on recycling. They talk about this as the tailpipe end of the thing. Focus on the tailpipe.
Kim: And if you just focus on the tailpipe, nothing has to change.
Jason: Exactly. So they’ll just clean up the tailpipe and say that’s fine. Because with these big company, particularly in our category and others, the investment in their supply chain, everything they have optimized, the use of plastic to make their products — you can make 500 diapers a minute with the current state-of-the-art technology. If you say, “Well, if you use different materials, you could make 300 a minute,” that’s the end of the business. It’s a low-margin, high-volume business. So I think these bigger companies that say circularity is hard are right. Circularity is hard, but we see it’s the only way we’re going to get out of here alive.
We have to reimagine how we live. We’re the only species on earth that creates waste. That’s fairly profound. We’re the only species on earth that creates waste. And right now, it’s ending up in holes in the ground, or we’re burning it, or it’s going into the oceans. So I’m sympathetic to big companies because it’s such a huge shift.
The other piece is the citizen. And I say citizen, rather than consumer, because I think that’s a really important distinction. We’re called consumers. We’re told we’re consumers. What do consumers do? We consume. But as citizens, for a moment, we can think through how we show up in a circular economy.
NationSwell: But did operating in a circular way also create opportunities?
Kim: Absolutely. It propelled us forward.
What’s frustrating, and why you probably don’t see a lot of companies actually actively selling in the circular way is because it only really works for business if everyone is circular. But trying to be a circular player when your competitors are linear doesn’t make sense. It’s not a fair playing field. It’s rigged in their favor. Forget the fact that our materials are more expensive, so are our diaper is more expensive because that happens now in sustainability. The sustainable products, the organic broccoli is more than the regular broccoli. But now we’re adding a circular system where we’re the ones who collect and compost it, too. Well, guess what? That costs money. Anything I do, anything is more expensive than free. And yes, I can make compost, and we can sell the compost, but that’s not enough to subsidize the 100% of the cost of it.
So you have to then get creative on, wait, there’s this price differential, which is one of the biggest barriers to the market. Now, my product is more expensive. And now you have a service that right now I don’t pay. I don’t feel that I’m paying for my diapers to be collected in Sydney because they go in my rubbish bin. In America, I know you guys pay for your bins directly, but it’s not the same. If suddenly you needed a diaper service, it’s a new bill that you’re paying.
So the idea that in a linear world, consumers don’t have to pay for any of the damage they’re doing, and the companies don’t pay for any of the damage. So we’re not accounting for true costs. Where when you bring in a circular solution, I’m saying to the consumer, “Pay for the circular product,” it’s a premium, and most people will not pay that premium. But on top of that, why should they pay for a service for the end of life of it. Why should that be on them? It really should come back to governments.
Jason: If you tax a bad behavior and you subsidize a good behavior, lo and behold, everything changes.
Kim: This is where, when the companies say, “It’s hard,” whether it’s Pampers or Coke, or anyone because they’ll say, “Well, but it’ll cost $4 a diaper.” No shit. It’s supposed to cost $4. And then taxing and subsidizing would make us cheap or comparable. This is why it’s so hard to bring circular solutions into a linear world.