Japanese adult diapers may well be the ultimate Philosopher stone. In 2019, over a fifth of the Japanese population is 70 years old and over. That’s more than 24 million people, close to the entire population of Australia. In 2040, the number of 70+ in Japan will be equivalent to the current population of the entire State of California – 35 million people!
According to a large survey conducted in Japan by Toba et al., the prevalence of Urinary incontinence in facilities providing long-term care was estimated to be 72%. 59.3% of the adults over 70 years old suffer from Overactive bladder (OAB) which is the main source of incontinence. We can reasonably assume that by the year 2040, over 18 million people in Japan will need some form of urinary protection. At the global level, people suffering from incontinence will represent the third-largest country in the world.
Demographics aside, adult diapers are a very attractive business. Personal hygiene manufacturers are all targetting Japan for good reasons. Their selling price point can be up to 2.5 times more than infant diapers. The sales channels to institutions like hospitals and nursing homes are also obvious. Japanese Paper Companies with huge manufacturing facilities realized that a long time ago. In 2011, for the first time, Unicharm Corp.’s sales of adult diapers had been outselling baby nappies. In 2017, Japan accounted for 16.25% of the global market. Technavio market research analysts forecast the urinary incontinence products market in Japan to grow at a CAGR of close to 5% during the 2016 to 2021 period from $1,067 million to $1,336 million. There is no doubt that in the coming years, personal care brands will focus on expanding their manufacturing capabilities in Japan and concentrate on disposable adult diapers.
Marketing adult diapers in Japan is somehow still a sensitive subject. In 2008, the Aging Lifestyle Research Center organized in Tokyo an Adult Diaper Fashion show. The goal was to bring a bit of humor to a problem still seen as socially embarrassing. Finding ways to sell adult diapers is tricky. Sweden’s SCA, the world’s biggest hygiene product maker, realized that the hard way. They sent a sample of their adult pampers to every Swedish man over the age of 55. They received a massive amount of angry phone calls from men who were perhaps not entirely reconciled to needing the company’s products someday. Nowadays, the ultimate goal for personal care companies is to make adult diapers that are as invisible as possible. Branding, Design, and marketing are critical for adult diapers to be sold without feeling ashamed or embarrassed.
THAT’S A LOT OF DIAPERS TO RECYCLE
But the economic growth linked to the consumption increase comes at a cost. The environment is likely to pay the price. As an example, a care facility located in Nagoya -with just 20 elderly residents- typically produces around three 90-liter garbage bags full of odorous diapers every day. For a hospital with 120 beds, it represents 3.6 tons of disposable diapers to discard every month. The Nippon Disposable Diaper Recycling Promotion Association considers that the amount of diaper waste increased by 72 percent to reach 1.45 million tons from 840,000 tons 10 years ago. Japanese diapers for adults account for 20 to 30 percent of the total trash disposed of in rural areas with a high percentage of elderly.
The Japanese government intends to define guidelines on how to treat, retrieve, and recycle disposable Japanese adult diapers. The goal is to transfer diapers into pellets and ultimately be used as combustible materials.
Some companies have detected this opportunity and have already started working on Japanese adult diapers recycling machines. One separates the nappies from its contents such that only the excrement is flushed while the diaper is discarded in a regular bin. The company Lixil is also developing a diaper-crushing device with hopes that it can be fully operational by 2021. The land ministry has also reportedly asked Panasonic to develop a prototype of equipment to separate excrement from diapers.
The small town of Hoki in Tottori Prefecture was the first one to collect used disposable diapers from hospitals and nursing homes and to recycle them into combustible. The collected nappies for adults are converted into pellets that can be used as fuel at a spa. This town of just 12,000 inhabitants treats 1.2 tons of disposable pampers a day, including those collected from neighboring towns. Tokyo’s University Hospital also uses diapers as combustible in massive specifically designed furnaces.
In the Fukuoka Prefecture, Japanese diapers for adults are melted in water. The pulp is then reused as construction materials. The plastic components being turned into fuel. The main drawback of this approach is linked to the high recycling costs involved.
TECHNOLOGY TO THE RESCUE
Urinary incontinence is a massive problem. Not the least because of the social stigma and psychological burden attached. Triple W was founded in Japan in 2015 and has offices in Tokyo, Paris, and San Diego. Their main product DFree, which stands for “Diaper Free,” is currently used in over 500 senior care facilities in Japan and Europe. DFree is based on ultrasound technology to monitor bladder fullness. The user is discretely notified via his smartphone or smartwatch when it’s time to go to the bathroom. In 2019, during the CES show, Triple W and DFree won six innovation awards, including the 2019 “Best of CES Award” – Digital Health and Fitness Category.
Tokyo University Researchers Professor Takayasu Sakurai and Professor Takao Someya have worked on a flexible, disposable sensor for diapers. The sensor printed with unique inkjet technology detects moisture, humidity, and pressure and transmits information wirelessly. This printed electronics smart diaper technology is primarily aimed at adult diapers.
Monit, a Korean Company, developed a Bluetooth cookie-sized sensor that attaches to the outside of the diaper and monitors diaper consumption, pee, and sleeping patterns. Using such a smart diaper sensor can significantly reduce urinary tract infections. The Monit smart diaper monitor was introduced in Korea and Japan at the beginning of 2019. Considering the size of the potential market, Giant Companies, such as Kimberly Clark, have partnered with Monit to bring this technology to Huggies diapers. Even though this technology has been initially developed for babies. It is reasonable to assume that it could also be used for the elderlies.
Japan’s aging population brings a lot of constraints to its economy. It also carries a lot of innovation and not only in telemedicine or robotics. In Japan, business opportunities lie everywhere. Japanese adult diapers are now becoming an environmental issue that has caught the attention of the Government. How Japan companies will benefit from the adult diaper market is an example to follow. It will be a test run for the tsunami of adult pampers that will soon hit India, China, the US, and Europe.