Alternative facts, dodgy stats and a thumbs down for the Environment Agency

Hands up who’s heard the one about “Ah, but all that water you use to wash those nappies - they’re not any better in the end, are they?”

And who’s been online and found gems like “unless managed carefully, reusable nappies can create just as many carbon emissions as disposables”?

So where exactly do these dodgy ‘facts’ come from? The single-use nappy manufacturers? Climate change deniers? Well, no. The chances are that the ‘fact’ stems from an often quoted, highly influential report by none other than the Environment Agency.

Yes, you read that right.

In 2008 the Environment Agency published its lifecycle analysis of disposable and reusable nappies. To this day, it is quoted in virtually every article and analysis about reusable versus single use.

But it’s the Environment Agency, so hey, it must be right.


Wrong. So wrong.

In 2005 The Environment Agency produced a report on the environmental impact of nappies. It was immediately discredited - hence the 2008 update.

Even in 2008 the report wasn’t very good. Now, in 2018, it’s about as relevant as a Nokia 8210 at a tech convention.

To be clear, the report does show that reusables are a better environmental option- but the inaccurate assumptions and conclusions paint a picture that is far less clear-cut than reality.

So why are we getting our nappies in a twist about it? Well, for starters, in January the Environment Agency pledged to eliminate avoidable waste and crack down on plastics. And this report doesn’t help those of us who have been doing this for years. But, basically, it comes down to the fact that this widely-quoted report by a reputable organisation is based on bad science and obsolete facts. Here’s why.

It’s out-of-date

• The energy efficiency and water consumption of washing machines have improved exponentially since 2005. The report data is 12 years out-of-date - a lifetime in technology.

• Electricity in 2006 was mainly generated by coal. In 2018, nuclear and renewables make up the majority of the mix. This radically changes the calculations on the impact of washing. (And drying. More on that in a minute…)

It makes assumptions that are...suspect…

Any report like this needs to make assumptions about what people do. Judging by the assumptions made in the report, we’re going out on a limb and suggesting that none of the report authors were parents.

• The report assumes that 25% of reusable nappies will be tumble dried. We polled our parents and just 6% use a dryer more than once a week; 27% of our poll say they dry nappies in a drier no more than a few times a year; and 50% have never used a tumble dryer for their nappies.

• According to the report, reusables will always be washed at 60 degrees with a pre-wash, and will be washed every two days.

• It assumes that reusables will only be used for one child. In our poll, there was not a single parent who had nappies that will be used by only one child. Personally, I have hand-me-down nappies that are on child number 5 and still going strong.

• Babies in disposables need four nappy changes a day, including seven daily changes for a newborn. Parents, take a moment to imagine that alternate universe…

• Although the number of nappy changes is a serious point. It means all the report calculations are based on a baby needing 3,796 disposable nappies. Every credible sources we’ve seen put the figure at nearer 5,000-6,000, meaning the report figures for disposables are out by 20-30%.

The report draws some pretty dodgy conclusions from its own data

• The report says that the disposable industry ‘achieved’ a 13.5% reduction in nappy weight and concludes that this leads to a reduced global warming effect. It does not recognise that the weight reduction is due to the increased use of oil-based plastic polymers.

• The report aims to look at ‘environmental impacts’ - but the only measure it uses is carbon emissions. There’s no consideration of the water pollution involved in pulp production or chlorine bleaching. No consideration of water usage (by the reports own calculations, reusables use less than a quarter of the water needed to manufacture disposables). And no consideration of the impact of single-use plastics.

It’s 2018. We now know that our impact on the environment goes far beyond CO2 emissions. We have asked the Environment Agency to update the report, and we’ll let you know what they say. But until that happens, at least you know where so many of the alternative facts and dodgy stats come from, and why they sound so convincing!

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