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the environmental impact of disposable nappies


It is estimated that 20% of parents in Europe use reusable nappies on their children, 15% doing so for economic reasons, and just 5% choosing to do so for their reduced environmental impact. But the reduced environmental impact is significant and is something that there has been some confusion around over the past 10 years.

When starting your research into nappy choices, you might think to search for an up-to-date environmental study of disposable versus reusable nappies. Sadly, your search is not going to come up with very much. Any articles that do exist will likely reference the Environment Agency report from 2005 (which was immediately discredited upon its publication), or the only marginally better update from 2008. The original report presents reusable nappies as more environmentally damaging than disposables, based on inaccurate assumptions and flawed science. While the 2008 update does in fact conclude that reusable nappies are the more environmental choice, it does not go nearly far enough to repair the damage caused by the 2005 paper. This report led to a generation of people believing that reusable nappies produce just as much (or more) carbon emissions than disposables, or dismissing them due to the concerns over increased water consumption.

But the reports failed to accurately reflect how parents really use modern cloth nappies, and here in 2020, the data in both reports is out of date – energy efficiency in washing machines has improved greatly in the past 12 years, and the way energy is produced has also changed. We now know that environmental impact goes far beyond CO 2 emissions.


Disposable nappy production

Did you know, the manufacture of single-use nappies actually has a greater environmental impact than the waste management of them?

  • It takes over 1,500 litres of crude oil to produce enough nappies for one child (from birth to 2.5 years) and it takes 10 times more water to produce disposable nappies than the water used to wash reusables.
  • Wood pulp is a main component of the disposable nappy, and the production of it is both highly water intensive and can be a source of deforestation and soil impoverishment.
  • By swapping to reusables the carbon footprint of a nappy can be reduced by 40%, which is equivalent to 200kg of CO 2 equivalents over two and half years.
  • As with any single-use item, it really goes without saying that more natural resources are going to be involved in their production than in their reusable counterpart.


Waste management

A child in disposables will generate almost 900kg of nappy waste during its first two years of infancy. Quite the legacy. If only 20% of babies in nappies switched to reusables, the amount of waste that could be prevented in Europe alone would be more than 1 million tonnes per year. Throughout Europe, 87% of single-use nappies are sent to landfill. The remaining 13% are incinerated, which itself has a negative impact on the environment since the combustion of plastics gives rise to highly toxic pollutants. Here in the UK, the landfill tax per tonne is £96.70 (accurate as of April 2021). Reducing waste pays, and I am sure we can all think of much better ways for our local councils to spend their money. Some nappies are sent to waste-to-
energy plants, but the process of this disposal option still has an environmental impact.

The general waste hierarchy should always be:

  1. Prevention/Reduce
  2. Reuse
  3. Recycle
  4. Recovery (i.e. waste-to-energy solutions)
  5. Disposal (i.e. landfill or incineration without energy recovery)

Of course, elimination communication (EC) is a consideration when it comes to our efforts to reduce waste, but second to that has to be a fully reusable nappy option.

As we all move away from plastic straws, plastic bags, and disposable coffee cups, it is important to recognise nappies and wet wipes as single-use plastic too. Why throw away when we can reuse, time and time again?


Washing nappies

When we look at the water and energy used to wash reusable nappies, it is usually discussed in terms of cost savings. For example, in energy terms, an average wash cycle will cost 16 pence as it uses one unit of electricity. Additionally, an Energy Star-rated machine will incur a cost of approximately 6 pence per wash based on the use of sixty litres of water per cycle. We already know that the manufacturing processes involved in disposable nappies is 10 times this amount.

Most modern cloth nappies are designed to dry quickly on the line or an airer, so relying on a tumble drier is just not necessary. This, of course, greatly reduces any energy usage that may be assumed when we talk about reusable nappies.

There are even nappy detergents on the market now that are designed to enable you to wash your nappies at just 30°, thus reducing the impact of nappy laundering even further.


What about biodegradable disposables?

You will see a few brands of single-use nappies marketed as biodegradable or referred to as “eco-disposables”. However, the fact is that these terms are misleading. These nappies generally contain mixed materials which require different environments in order to degrade, and simply cannot do so under landfill conditions. Nor can they be disposed of in a regular compost bin. Whilst the production of these nappies might be marginally better in terms of their production (they
may have unbleached cores and contain fewer chemicals), they are very likely to end up in exactly the same place as a regular disposable nappy – lying in a landfill site for the next 500 years.

But look, we – The Nappy Gurus – are not monsters, and we understand that some instances might call for a disposable nappy option. Indeed, for some families, reusable nappies might simply be more than they can handle at any given time. So, as it stands, eco-disposables do still have a place on the market and can serve as a slightly better solution when life calls for a single-use option.


Positive changes

We’re not about shaming families for their choices, or about pushing anyone down a route that won’t work for them. Perhaps the way reusable nappies can work for one particular family is by using them part time – fine! For every reusable nappy changed, that is one less disposable in landfill, and we are happy with that. As they say, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

We can all do our bit to chip away at the misconceptions surrounding reusable nappies, and to represent them in a more positive way. Striking up a conversation at a baby group, or showing off a beautiful nappy at change time, can all help to normalise modern cloth nappies. The important thing to note is that opting for reusable nappies needn’t be daunting or overwhelming. There is so much support around to help families get to grips with reusable nappies and to make them work first time, from lending libraries to demonstrations, from video guides to online recommendation forms. If you need a bit of extra help getting started, it is all out there!

Our best advice to anyone though is to just dip your toe in and get started. The best way to learn about anything new is to try it, and it will quickly start to make sense and fall into place. Together we can #makeclothmainstream.

Laura Davies is the founder of The Nappy Gurus, a team of dedicated parents informing, educating and inspiring other parents to consider reusable nappy and wipe alternatives, providing support by phone, online, and face-to-face. www.thenappygurus.com, on Facebook and Instagram @thenappygurus.