Can reusable incontinence products solve a major waste problem?

Last updated on 22 January 2024

Reusable incontinence products can provide a positive environmental impact by reducing the amount of landfill. [Source: Shutterstock]

Adult incontinence products outweigh the number of diapers going into landfill in Australia and experts are confident that will only grow as the ageing population increases. Ongoing conversations regarding the sustainability of adult incontinence products and their impact on the environment cannot be avoided.

The figures behind incontinence 

  • Between 75-81% of aged care residents are incontinent with most experiencing urinary incontinence 
  • It’s estimated that $5.6 million is spent annually on landfill levies for aged care providers to dispose of adult incontinence products
  • The global reusable incontinence products market was valued at about $7 billion (AUD) in 2021 

Essity – the manufacturer of incontinence brand TENA – ran a trial where incontinence products were turned into fertiliser, or biochar, a type of charcoal that strengthens soil fertility. Project Divert saw waste from ten aged care facilities processed at a facility in the Victorian town of Sale. It proved successful and close to 16 tonnes of waste was converted.

Although Project Divert could be the future of recycling, another approach to incontinence products is reducing the amount of disposable waste coming out of aged care homes. 

There is already a growing trend for washable and reusable incontinence products and Michael Lakiss-Smith, General Manager of Night N Day Comfort, told hello leaders that established beliefs about reusable products have been thrown out the door.

“It’s great to see reusability is coming back, you could even argue it’s trendy,” Mr Lakiss-Smith said. “Today, people are more environmentally conscious. They want to reduce their carbon footprint and limit the amount of waste they’re contributing to landfill. A reusable product definitely ticks all of those boxes.”

“If there is that pre-conceived notion that they’re ghastly, they’re smelly, with all due respect, they’re wrong. There is a position for disposables but there’s definitely a position for reusables now and in the future.”

One major challenge with adult incontinence products is the uncertainty around how long they’re needed. Someone may use them for the short term after surgery, while others may rely on them for years.

Mr Lakiss-Smith said there’s always common sense in using disposable products for the short term as a resident or home care client might only need them short-term post-surgery. But if it looks like they’ll be relying on continence support for longer than six months it’s best to invest in a long-term solution.

“If there is surgery, illness or accident and leakage experienced as a result, then within that three to six-month mark disposables will always have their place,” he explained. “From there, reusables are really a no-brainer moving forward from the environmental standpoint.”

“The reason I use that three-to-six-month mark is that’s where your break-even point is from a cost-benefit analysis. If I was using disposables every day, that equals a specific amount. However, if I purchase reusables, whilst it’s a higher upfront cost, you achieve your break-even. These products can last two or three years and the savings can be in the thousands.”

Washable products that resemble everyday underwear also provide an added level of confidence for older people. Research has found that depression and increased stress levels are more common in people with urinary incontinence. But by ditching what’s perceived as an adult diaper, a sense of independence is regained.

“If you’re given a disposable and a reusable product that is equal, you take the reusable all day every day. It’s much more dignified with the same performance – if not improved performance – and the use of reusables enhances the overall positive feeling,” Mr Lakiss-Smith said. 

Of course, there are circumstances where disposable products are necessary. Faecal incontinence requires the safe disposal of products for the safety of staff and residents. In some cases, higher output means heavy-duty liners are required. Mr Lakiss-Smith said inserting an additional disposable liner into reusable incontinence underwear is a great solution as the two products are complementary.

But ultimately, when looking for a product that gives residents choice and reduces the amount of waste in a facility, reusable incontinence products are a leading option.

aged care
adult incontinence
products and equipment