Diaper Disposal Poses Challenge for Japan Childcare Facilities

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Azusa Sato throws away a used diaper at the Hachiman Nintei Kodomoen certified childcare center in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture.

Parents have welcomed the health ministry’s recommendation in January that childcare facilities dispose of used diapers instead of requiring parents to take them home, but some local governments are concerned about the expense involved and specific means of disposal.

“The smell was bad, and we just threw them away after taking them home. Now it’s a lot easier because the facility throws them away,” said Hatsumi Arauchi, 35, with a big smile. Arauchi is a nursing care worker who had come to the Hachiman Nintei Kodomoen certified childcare center in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, to pick up her 2-year-old son Hayato.

Before the facility recently changed its diaper policy, Arauchi had to take home not only the towels and clothes her son used every day, but also a trash bag containing five to six used diapers.

In August last year, 11 childcare facilities in Ichihara, including publicly run and certified facilities, stopped requiring that parents take used diapers home. Instead, the facilities have been disposing of them, incurring a monthly cost increase of ¥160,000, which is paid for by the city.

At the Hachiman Nintei Kodomoen facility, each child’s parent used to line their bucket with a trash bag in the morning, and a teacher or staffer put each child’s used diapers in their bucket. These were later given to the parent when they picked up the child.

Now all the used diapers are put in a special receptacle. When it gets full, it is taken to another receptacle outside.

“When we were sorting the used nappies, we had no choice but to turn our attention away from the children. We also had to be careful because we couldn’t make mistakes with the buckets. Now we have more time to watch the kids,” said teacher Azusa Sato, 40.

Holdover from cloth diapers

The custom of parents taking home their children’s used diapers is believed to be a holdover from the time when only cloth diapers were available. It was said that parents could monitor their children’s health by examining the waste on the diapers when they washed them.

Babyjob Inc., an Osaka-based company that provides paper diaper services for childcare facilities, surveyed local governments nationwide about whether their publicly run facilities asked parents to take used diapers home. This was found to be the case in 571 municipalities, or about 40% of all the municipalities where there were publicly run childcare facilities.

The most commonly cited reason was “for children’s health,” given by 43% of the local governments that responded to the survey. This was followed by “We’ve been doing it for a long time. The reason is unknown” at 30%.

The novel coronavirus pandemic heightened people’s awareness of personal hygiene, and the practice of keeping children’s stools for many hours at childcare facilities came to be seen as problematic. Parents increasingly wanted used diapers be disposed of by the facilities.

In January, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry notified local governments that it was recommending that childcare facilities dispose of the diapers used by children in their care. The ministry also informed local governments that subsidies are available for the facilities to purchase trash receptacles for used diapers.

Local governments have been taking steps to alter their policies, but they are also concerned.

“We have to consider various possibilities, including asking parents to shoulder the cost of disposal,” an official of a city government in Hokkaido said with a worried look.

Used diapers are categorized as household waste once they are taken home, but they are business-related waste when disposed of at a childcare facility. If the facilities are to discard them, new budgetary measures will be needed to cover the expense.

“The biggest problem for [childcare] facilities in disposing of diapers is where to keep them,” said an official of the Kadoma city government in Osaka Prefecture. The city is considering halting the practice of making parents take diapers home from publicly run childcare facilities, but some facilities are too small to store diapers even temporarily.

“We’ll think about where to keep them and how often garbage should be collected, so we can make it happen as soon as possible,” the official said.

Akihito Ishii, an associated professor of the Otsuma Women’s University, said: “We shouldn’t be tied down by customs and conventions; we must allow childcare to change depending on the needs of facilities and parents. Local governments that still haven’t taken any steps toward having childcare facilities take care of diaper disposal need to start laying the groundwork quickly.”