A recycling scheme for single use nappies has just started in Swansea. At the launch Councillor Mark Thomas said “We want all households in the city to try and reduce the amount of black bag waste they produce by recycling more of their household waste”.
There are two alternatives. We can continue to cut down seven million trees a year; and use 37 litres of water and a cup of crude oil to manufacture each of the three billion nappies that are thrown away each year. We can then collect those used-once nappies, transport them to a newly built processing plant where yet more energy will be used to treat them and separate the plastics, which will then be transported to another plant for energy-intensive recycling.
Or we can buy 20 reusable nappies per family, wash them and reuse them.
Our love affair with all things ‘disposable’ has reached the stage where the solution to reducing the amount of black bag waste produced is to introduce a complex and inefficient recycling process. Not to simply stop producing the waste in the first place.
Anyone involved in environmental or waste management will repeat the same mantra again and again.
Reduce, reuse, recycle - in that order. Reduce the amount you use. Reuse what you have. Recycle if there is no other option.
Councils have had targets for increasing the amount of household waste that is recycled for years. Recycling rates across the UK have steadily increased, and each increase is hailed as a success. But this reliance on recycling is a sticking plaster, not a solution.
The councils’ target is to increase the amount of waste that it is recycled - it is not to reduce the amount of waste produced. So while the amount of waste that is recycled has increased, the total amount of waste produced has stayed stubbornly high. We are recycling - but at the expense of reducing.
And that is unsustainable.
Our fixation on recycling has made us blind us to the obvious. A glass milk bottle that is manufactured once, washed and reused is clearly a better option than a single use plastic bottle that has to be recycled and replaced.
A cloth nappy that is manufactured once, washed and reused by multiple children is blatantly a better option than a single use plastic nappy that has to be replaced 5,000 times per child.
And then there’s the problem that recycling plastic is hard. It’s an inefficient industrial process. Glass and aluminium can be recycled over and over without losing their quality. Plastic degrades so much that it can only be recycled a handful of times, before becoming useless.
Finding new ways to recycle has almost become a sport, with companies falling over themselves to ‘invest in ground breaking technologies’. But rather than investing millions in finding ‘solutions’ to recycling single-use nappies, it would be easier, cheaper and more efficient if we simply didn’t need to recycle them in the first place.
To be fair to Councillor Thomas of Swansea, he also said: “Obviously the best alternative to parents using disposable nappies is to try reusable ones.”
But as a country we have got into the mindset that recycling is good. Putting a plastic milk bottle in the ‘black bin’ would feel wrong; putting it in the recycling is guilt-free, despite the fact that glass would so clearly be better.
As long as recycling is seen as a solution, instead of a last resort, then the recycling of single-use nappies is a worrying trend that will stand in the way of the essentials - reduction and reuse.