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Diaper Pollution Menace Threatens Lesotho’s Pristine Landscapes

According to researchers, diapers you throw away have a harmful chemical called dioxin, which can be really bad for health, can even cause cancer.

6 December 2023 by Pascalinah Kabi

 Est Read Time: 8 min(s) 10 sec(s)

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Paseka Lentsoenyane, a 36-year-old resident of Hleoheng in Maputsoe, Lesotho, stands on the surface covered in lush green grass outside his home.

Beneath this seemingly ordinary ground lies a concealed secret—a hole that Paseka and his wife dug three years ago, just four months before the birth of their son.

In an interview with Uncensored News on 30 October 2023, Lentsoenyane shared the journey that led to this hidden pit.

In 2019, amidst the challenges of the Covid-19 lockdown, the Lentsoenyane family eagerly anticipated the arrival of their firstborn.

Comprehensive preparations, including attending antenatal classes, were meticulously made to ensure every detail was in place.

However, a pivotal moment occurred during a routine drive to the clinic. Lentsoenyane witnessed a careless act—another driver discarding a plastic bag filled with used disposable diapers out of the car window.

This incident sparked a profound question in Lentsoenyane’s mind: “Just like that, you are throwing your child’s waste out the window of your car?”

In November 2020, a study titled ‘Disposable Diapers: Impact of Disposal Methods on Public Health and the Environment‘ was published in the American Journal of Medicine and Public Health.

According to this study, many moms and caregivers worldwide prefer disposable diapers over cloth ones because they are more convenient.

However, tossing them away carelessly is not good for the environment and can impact health. In terms of health, it’s important to know that disposable diapers contain a harmful chemical called dioxin.

Authors of this study describe dioxin as “an extremely toxic by-product of the paper-bleaching process and a carcinogenic chemical, the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals.”

The study points out that people throwing away diapers improperly is a problem in Africa and globally. It causes a lot of waste and harms the environment.

A sore sight

This widespread issue is evident in various locations, transforming once-beautiful landscapes into a sore sight. From Levis Neck to Tabola Tlase in the Leribe district, there are about twelve dumping sites filled with used disposable nappies. 

Only five of these sites have proper barricades, but they are either overflowing or not used correctly, with garbage dumped next to them.

“We have a problem like that at the Naleli/Koalabata bridge. That is a very unpleasant sight and smell. Worst part is that there is water under that bridge. People might use that water to drink it or kids might swim in that water,” Facebook user, Flexboy Ysl, commented on Uncensored News post six weeks ago.

Diapers that people throw away do not break down easily in the environment because they are made of strong plastics and super absorbent stuff, explains the American Journal of Medicine and Public Health.

This journal explains that this makes diapers harmful to the environment for a really long time, like up to 250 to 500 years.

 In many other parts of Lesotho, like in Nazareth in Maseru or in Mafeteng district, carelessly thrown used disposable nappies are testament to a rapidly increasing problem of diaper pollution.

A study called ‘Comparative Provincial Assessment of Disposable Nappies or Diaper System Dynamics‘ found that a baby uses about five nappies a day for two and a half years.

Every week, parents with a baby under three years old throw away about 35 diapers. That is around 150 diapers each month and a huge 1,825 diapers every year. In three years, one family gets rid of 5,475 diapers.

In 2021, Lesotho had 30,493 new babies born, but unfortunately, 298 babies passed away. Let us imagine that half of those 30,000 babies used disposable diapers, and parents of a quarter of them, which is 7,500, threw away nappies carelessly.

That means 262,500 diapers were dumped illegally in just one week. In a month, it’s a whopping 1.1 million diapers thrown away without care. And in 2021 alone, a staggering 13.7 million diapers were disposed of thoughtlessly.

If all these 7,500 babies used disposable diapers for three years, their parents would have polluted Lesotho’s environment with 41 million diapers. That’s a lot!

WeeklyMonthlyAnnuallyNappies in Indiscriminate Dumps
Family351501, 8755, 475
Lesotho262, 5001.1 million13.7 million41 million
Estimated Diaper Disposal Statistics: Family vs. Lesotho (2021)

“Discarded nappy waste negatively impacts the environment in a variety of ways, including water pollution when disposable nappies are discarded in watercourses or air pollution when nappy waste is burned,” highlights Comparative Provincial Assessment of Disposal Nappies or Diaper System Dynamics study.

The study further indicates that nappy waste blocks water flow and compounds the effects of flooding. As such, the study indicates that disposal nappy waste is fast becoming one of the most serious environmental health issues in South Africa.

In Lesotho, Uncensored News was unable to establish the extent of the impact of disposal nappy waste. This is because repeated efforts to obtain a comment from the Department of Environment between 27 October and 4 December 2023, were unsuccessful.

However, the American Journal of Medicine and Public Health says disposal diapers are made of polymers – main stuff used in making things like plastic grocery bags. Sadly, according to this Journal, most diapers are made of plastics that can not be recycled.

Neo Matsoso is Head of Exploration at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Lesotho. On 17 November 2023, Matsoso told Uncensored News that UNDP has not carried out works on disposal diapers.

But, Matsoso says in 2012, plastic waste was estimated at only five percent of the total waste generated in Maseru.

“Today it is more evident due to indiscriminate dumping on roadsides, markets and other public places often resulting in a hazardous environment to plant, animal and human species,” said Matsoso.

Communicable diseases

This environmental hazard extends far beyond careless waste disposal, as highlighted by the American Journal of Medicine and Public Health, which cautions that haphazard diaper disposal may lead to the dissemination of communicable diseases such as cholera.

Owing to the indiscriminate disposal of disposable diapers, nappies either end up in disposal sites and landfills or litter public spaces, including farmlands, causing an aesthetic nuisance. The waste disposal systems in developing countries, like Lesotho, are inadequate.

Consequently, refuse containing human waste, including disposable diapers, is commonly found due to traditional waste-mixing methods and dumping at tipping sites or carelessly along roadsides.

“These negligent disposals of soiled disposable diapers carry bacteria (enterics), viruses, and, when in the environment, can be transmitted directly or indirectly.

“Some waste pickers use bare hands to salvage materials disposed of at the landfills. According to studies by Stenstrom et al. [13], unprotected waste pickers are exposed to more than 120 different types of viruses, including enteroviruses, rotavirus, enteric adenoviruses, and human caliciviruses (noroviruses), which may enter the environment through fecal matter,” emphasises the journal.

To mitigate the risk of communicable diseases resulting from improper diaper disposal, Lentsoenyane recommends that Lesotho implement regulations governing diaper disposal and enforce pertinent laws.

“Even though waste disposal is theoretically regulated, in practice, it remains unregulated. The absence of law enforcement contributes to a lack of concern regarding diaper pollution,” observed Lentsoenyane.

Expressing a similar sentiment, Adel Mokoatsi, a Facebook user, firmly believes that unless Lesotho establishes a law with punitive measures for diaper pollution, the problem will persist.

Section 38 of Lesotho’s Environment Act, 2008, explicitly prohibits people from polluting the environment.

According to the provision, anyone who exceeds the standards or guidelines outlined in this act while polluting the environment is deemed to have committed an offense.

In the event of a conviction, the offender may face a fine amounting to no less than M5,000, imprisonment for a duration of up to two years, or a combination of both penalties.

Digging for change

Amidst the regulatory framework designed to curb environmental violations, individuals like Lentsoenyane have taken it upon themselves to instill change.

Lentsoenyane’s upbringing, shaped by his mother’s teachings on self-respect and consideration for others, serves as a foundation for his proactive approach to addressing challenges, including the critical issue of diaper pollution.

“That teaching stuck with me,” explains Lentsoenyane. When his son was born in June 2020, Lentsoenyane and his wife had a unique idea for dealing with diapers.

They dug a special hole in the ground, kind of like a mini toilet. They put up poles and corrugated sheets and a mixture of cement and sand to cover it, making it a little tough for others to get in. Their plan was to make tossing diapers easy for them and keep others from messing with it.

Paseka Lentsoenyane stands on top of a hole he and his wife used to bury their son’s disposal diapers.

“As our baby entered the world, we embraced the routine of depositing his diapers into our purposeful pit. The process was smooth, and our underground diaper repository served its purpose efficiently.

“Looking ahead, our plan included a unique twist – once our son grew old enough, we envisioned transforming the diaper-filled pit into a special spot for him, a tiny personal toilet of his own,” explains Lentsoenyane.

In Kenya, some women also bury used diapers in holes in their yards, similar to what Lentsoenyane did. This method makes up about five percent of how diapers are thrown away in Kenya.

While some parents in Lesotho carelessly toss diapers anywhere, Lentsoenyane is not the only one trying to protect the environment.

A Facebook post by Uncensored News about diaper pollution in Lesotho led to stories like Lentsoenyane’s. Another person, Kananelo Thoola, used to hang diapers to dry after cleaning them and then burned them to get rid of them.

Thoola did not like it when people tossed diapers in the river, far from their homes. “Those who do that made their own waste someone else’s problem,” Thoola wrote on Facebook.

Matsoso emphasises that Lesotho, as a country that exports water to other places in southern Africa, needs to be part of the solution to deal with plastic waste in water bodies.

With more rain and flooding expected due to climate change, Matsoso says plastic in drains and water sources can make flood disasters worse and harm people and animals.

“In addition to toxic substances released from plastic waste dumped into poorly managed landfills and dumping sites, dangerous gases including greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide emitted from such sites pose hazards to communities as they are reportedly linked to loss of life and property as result of associated explosions and contamination of water sources,” Matsoso said.

Tourist attraction

Despite these environmental challenges, Lesotho remains a captivating tourist attraction. In 2019, Matsoso highlighted that Lesotho welcomed 1.2 million visitors, making a substantial contribution of 16.2 percent to the country’s economy.

She emphasises that tourism creates jobs, especially for many women and young people. It also helps small businesses and makes the hospitality industry bigger.

But, there is a problem. “The indiscriminate dumping of plastic and other waste across this scenic vista, has the potential to reverse the gains and curtail the potential of the (tourism) industry,” Matsoso said.

Between 2021 and 2022, the UNDP helped with a project to manage plastic better in Lesotho. It worked with the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture, now Department of Environment, to teach people about the problems of plastic and find better ways to use it.

The project did things like checking how much trash Lesotho has, having a day without using plastic, and even making rules for managing waste. They also created plans for the government to take care of waste in the long run. And the good news is, because of these efforts, more people now know about waste management.

“(This) has led to a rise in the number of start-ups or youth and women engagement in recycling activities,” Matsoso said. These initiatives showcase the positive influence of informed waste management strategies.

And as such, in the face of the growing crisis of diaper pollution, it is crucial that the society collectively takes a stand for a healthier, more sustainable environment.

Simple changes in your daily habits can make a significant impact. Consider opting for eco-friendly diaper alternatives, advocating for responsible disposal practices, and supporting initiatives that promote awareness about the environmental consequences of improper diaper disposal.

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