Reusable versus disposable nappies: the real story of their environmental impact

If you look around the web for an up-to-date, research-based assessment of the environmental impact of disposable nappies versus reusable nappies, you’ll come up with...not very much.

There are two problems with the articles that are out there already. The first is that disposable nappies are usually talked about as a waste problem - as in “nappies take 500 years to degrade in landfill”.

But it’s 2018, and we now understand that ‘environmental impact’ is a much bigger issue than landfill. If we want to look at the environmental impact of nappies, we have to look at much more than how they are disposed of.

The second big problem is that a LOT of the existing articles are based on an Environment Agency report from 2008. We’ve talked about this report before - how it was based on some pretty bad science to begin with; and how the data is now so out-of-date that it’s about as relevant to 2018 as that mix tape you recorded from the top 40. So here it is: an up-to-date, all-you-need-to-know post about the environmental impact of nappies.

Manufacturing nappies

Single use nappies are made from plastic and wood pulp. Both of which are created by dirty, resource intensive manufacturing processes.

Around seven million trees are cut down in the UK every year just to make the pulp for single use nappies.

It takes a cup of crude oil to make just ONE single use nappy.

A baby will be changed an average of 5,000 to 6,000 times. Which means that if you have two children, you’re likely to need 10,000 to 12,000 nappies.

If you use reusables full-time, you need about 20 nappies - which will almost certainly be used again for two, three or several children. This makes the manufacturing impact per child negligible in comparison to single use nappies - and most reusable nappies are made in factories that have strict environmental standards.

Disposable nappies are single use plastics

The UK throws away around 400,000 tonnes of single use nappies each year, which take between 450 and 550 years to degrade.

Compare that to the much maligned coffee cup? About 25,000 tonnes are thrown away; each takes about 30 years to degrade.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about coffee cups and a throw-away culture. But if we’re serious about tackling plastic pollution, we need to be realistic about which single use plastics are the worst offenders; instead of selecting the ones which are most socially palatable.

Cutting down seven million trees

Every year, the UK floods - a trend which scientists say is going to get worse. A huge part of the solution is in the way we manage our land - in particular, trees. Trees are essential for water management - they prevent soil erosion (which in turn reduces water pollution); they provide habitats for wildlife; they cut air pollution.

And yet every single year, we cut down seven million trees to manufacture nappies that will be used for - at most - a few hours.

What about the water issue?

When people think about using reusables, they associate them with using water and energy - because they have to be washed.

People think they are saving water by using single-use nappies. But that’s not true.

Washing three loads of nappies a week uses about 200 litres of water.

Manufacturing enough single-use nappies for a week? 1,550 litres.

Overall, using single use nappies means using nearly TEN TIMES more water than reusables.

There’s an argument about waste water too - that the detergent from washing pollutes the waterways. Which is a bit like saying that a spaniel can bite, so get a rottweiler instead.

When you wash nappies, the waste water goes back into the water treatment system and it’s pretty easy to deal with. It’s not ‘dirty’ water. The waste water from the plastics and pulp industries - THAT is dirty. Really, really dirty. Among other things it contains chlorine (from bleaching the pulp) and dioxins (carcinogenic pollutants that are causing big concern among those looking at plastics in the oceans).

What a waste

We throw away eight million single-use nappies every day in the UK - over 3 billion a year. Which really is an issue. As a single use nappy rots, it releases more of those dioxins and bleaching chemicals, as well as its - ahem - contents; and methane, one of the most worrying greenhouse gases.

When you use reusable nappies, the poo goes down the loo, so it can be treated like all other waste water.

You can recycle nappies

A few councils have single use nappy recycling schemes. This means they will collect those used-once nappies, transport them to a specially 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. It’s highly likely that at that point the plastic will be used to create a product that is non-recyclable due to the low quality of the plastic created.

Anyone involved in environmental or waste management will repeat the same mantra again and again. Reduce, reuse, recycle - in that order. Recycling is a last resort, not a solution.

Reusable nappies can be reused by multiple children. There are many ways they are reused when they reach the end of their nappy life - creating cloth sanitary products for girls in period poverty; as cleaning cloths that last for years; or simply being sold or donated to another baby or charity.

Biodegradable alternatives

The sad reality is that the ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ nappies aren’t the solution they’re assumed to be. Put a compostable nappy in a landfill site and it will do... nothing. A landfill isn’t a compost heap. Landfill is designed to stop things breaking down - if you open up a landfill site, you’ll find mummified fruit and readable newspapers from 40 years ago (both products that would have composted in weeks).

And if your household waste gets burnt, then it’s irrelevant whether the nappy is biodegradable or not.

The other problem with ‘eco’ nappies is that they still have to be manufactured and transported, over and over again. A few of the eco nappies include materials like corn starch, which does reduce their manufacturing impact; but to describe that as ‘eco friendly’ is a bit like saying you’ve gone green because you emptied your fridge full of wasted food into the compost bin instead of landfill.

 

This week, the world's leading climate scientists have warned that we need to get serious about changing the way we live. We have to think about which changes are going to have the most impact. We need to consider how we will respond when our children ask why we chose to ditch the single-use straws...but stick with the single-use nappies, when all the evidence was there. And we need to do it now.

  • About the author - Jane Shaw has many years’ experience as an investigative writer and journalist. She is a parent who used a mix of reusables and single use nappies; she has always believed that reusable nappies don’t have to be ‘all or nothing’. In 2018 she undertook an independent investigation into the environmental impact of nappies. She immediately stopped using single use nappies and wipes.


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