ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 27, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 48

Protecting baby and planet

Kudos for Sri Lankan who created world’s first totally biodegradable disposable diaper

By Daleena Samarajiwa

“Never be afraid to do something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark; professionals built the Titanic.”-Anonymous

In a world sinking under the garbage of a throw-away civilisation, Charisma Seneviratne has built an ark that has the potential to save humanity from drowning. She has created the world’s first totally biodegradable disposable diaper.

The convenience of the plastic-based diaper has come at a colossal cost to Earth and humanity. On average, a baby goes through about 5,000-6,000 disposable diapers before being potty trained. Every day, billions of non-biodegradable disposable diapers make their way into landfills across the world, where the bulk of them fester for at least the next 300 years, not only choking the soil but oozing methane, exacerbating global warming. In Australia alone, where Sri Lankan born Charisma resides, up to 2.2 million diapers are used daily.

In Sri Lanka, too, the use of plastic-based disposable diapers is on the rise. According to Dr. Lalith Wickremanayake, Chairman of the Environmental Foundation Ltd., more and more mothers, even from lower middle class families, are opting to use disposable diapers.

“It’s definitely a problem that will grow exponentially,” he says, adding that Sri Lankan society is changing rapidly. Such concepts as the extended family system etc. are disappearing, and people are looking for convenience when dealing with the time crunch. Disposable nappies are an easy solution.

Unfortunately, even biodegradable diapers aren’t much better for the environment or the health of babies. Many that are entering the market these days contain materials and chemicals that can aggravate conditions such as asthma, and even lower sperm count in boys. Most do not biodegrade well in airtight landfills.

The roots of Charisma’s invention go back to her childhood in Sri Lanka. As a child, she was fascinated by textiles. But motherhood was the turning point: In 1980, with the birth of her son, she grew concerned about the reactions her infant was having to reusable cloth nappies. He frequently developed nappy rash.

My mother used to tell me that comfort, safety and hygiene are the three norms of baby clothing, says Charisma. The feel and touch of materials is an important factor in early childhood.

“Non-breathable materials such as plastics can have a large impact on not just babies, but adults too. An unbreathable nappy initially leads to nappy rash, it then heats up the baby’s genital organs often causing infertility in little boys,” she says.

Driven by concern for her infant, she moved her focus to textile technology, and, later, fibre technology, starting with simple experiments in her garage. Following her passion, she took up a career in fashion design, eventually becoming wardrobe designer for events such as the Miss Sri Lanka for Miss World and Sri Lanka for Miss Universe pageants, focusing on natural materials such as calico.

Later, after the birth of her daughter, Timosha, in 1993, she applied for and was awarded a post gradate scholarship to Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia. The presentation that won her the scholarship was entitled “Disposable Destructions”, and focussed on the health and environmental implications of disposable diapers.

In 2000, she received a scholarship from John Curtin Institute of Technology and Zernike Australia to travel overseas to research International Marketing and Innovation at Zernike Netherlands in conjunction with Groningen University. It gave her the opportunity to work alongside world renowned designers and inventors in the Netherlands, and to conduct not only technical research and development, but international market research in the Netherlands, UK, Italy, India, Sri Lanka and Australia.

Charisma says that understanding the impact on non bio-degradable products such as nappies on the planet and humanity, revealed her life mission.“I commenced my studies focusing on the environment and how disposable nappies contributed to the issue of global warming. From the word go, this was meant to be,” she says.

Her research culminated in the invention of the Safeties Nature Nappy, a totally biodegradable disposable diaper manufactured from natural products and regenerated materials, that would not only protect the baby, but the planet too. She also invented a fabric-based technology that made the diaper exceptionally soft and breathable, with the ability to keep the baby ultra dry and comfortable without dehydrating or overheating the child.

Charisma’s invention has won recognition as the world’s first totally biodegradable disposable diaper, decomposing completely within six to eight months depending on soil conditions. Fabric-based and unperfumed, it reduces the risk of nappy rash by using a natural absorption process to draw liquid away from baby’s skin. To facilitate good practices among consumers, every diaper comes with a fully biodegradable disposal bag.

“In controlled landfill conditions, the Safeties nappy decomposes very quickly,” says Charisma. “The product is 95 percent natural materials which attracts bioactivity and with the nutrients produced by the baby accelerates the process. It also composts well.”

The invention won her recognition in Australia and worldwide, including the World Quality Commitment Gold Star Award 2001, Paris; the SGIO finalist award for Innovative products 2004 Western Australia; the New Inventors Peoples’ Choice 2004 award, the Gold Crown Award of UK 2006; and the American Chamber of Commerce Exponential award in 2007, to name a few. She was nominated for the Australian of the Year Award last year and this year.

Todate, she has been featured in more than 35 local and international media and appeared on television in Australia and the USA. In 2003, together with husband Thilak Seneviratne, she launched SeNevens International Pty Ltd. In November 2006, SeNevens launched the Safeties Nature Nappy Australia wide. Last year, the company was listed on the Australian Securities Exchange.

Charisma is currently Executive Chairperson of SeNevens, focusing on research and development into fibre based technology primarily for incontinence products. She has also widened the scope of her research focus to other marketable bio-degradable hygiene and sanitary products and medical applications.

Her first inventions have provided an ark to save humanity from the ravages of consumerist lifestyles. No longer an amateur, she is now focusing on more titantic solutions for the destruction caused by disposable technologies. Charisma is pursuing a PhD in Innovation and Technology for a safer world, focusing on cancer causes and preventative technology.

“Let us keep our planet as it deserves to be for our children who are the future of this world. And let it begin from your soul, your home as Mother love and mother nature cries from the heart,” she says.

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