Adult incontinence products are a bigger waste problem than nappies, according to researchers. (ABC News: Jon Kerr)

Adult incontinence products outnumber baby nappies in landfill — and could outstrip them 10-to-one by 2030, according to a new Australian study.

Researchers from the University of Queensland and Southern Cross University found adult products and their impact got less attention, but could have a bigger environmental footprint.

Co-author Emma Thompson-Brewster, an expert in waste management, said these were one of the last, and most difficult products yet to be diverted from landfill.

“They produce greenhouse gasses, leachate [water pollutants] and also it’s full of plastic so the plastic biodegrades into micro plastics, and there could be other chemicals.

“They’re not going away any time soon, and it’s important in any waste management issue that we talk about what the problem is – and the problem here is adult products,” she said.

One in four Australians experience incontinence, and unlike babies who age out of nappies, for some it may be a long-term or chronic condition, researchers said.

Disposable nappies
The EU has moved to ban untreated waste organic waste, including nappies and adult incontinence products, from landfill.(ABC South East: Keira Proust)

Social stigma could prevent people from seeking help, and instead depend on disposables.

The authors want to see policy changes to take adult absorbent products out of landfill.

The European Union has moved to ban untreated organic waste (including adult absorbent products) from landfill.

“We’ve diverted a lot of easy to recycle from landfill already, now we’re left with the tricky stuff and this is definitely one of the trickiest – and not just from an engineering perspective, but from a social and logistical perspective as well,” Dr Thompson-Brewster said.

That change has to come from high up, she said.

“The carers and people that use absorbent hygiene products don’t need to feel the guilt for using these products, they’re essential products, but our work was to highlight where a shift in policy and waste management practice should focus to create effective change,” Dr Thompson-Brewster said.

Joan Ostaszkiewicz, from the National Ageing Research Institute, said incontinence was “extraordinarily common” but largely hidden.

The former district nurse said the attitude to “just put up with it” needed to change, and people needed to know they could get treatment, or help to manage it.

“It’s not sustainable to continue to pad it up, to just keep using pads. It’s just concealing it. And we can’t keep doing that to the environment,” Professor Ostaszkiewicz said.