It's World Environment Day and what better time than today to discuss the environmental impact of nappies. When comparing reusable and disposable nappies, there are three main areas to consider: the manufacturing process; the amount of waste that goes to landfill; and the carbon emissions.
More and more conversations are being had around "single use plastic" and people are becoming increasingly aware of how much plastic is consumed and thrown away each year. A disposable nappy is exactly that - a "single use plastic" product - and a single nappy can take up to 500 years to decompose.
The Environment Agency conducted an environmental impact analysis of disposable vs reusable nappies and found that one disposable nappy consists of 25% plastic (and a further 4% adhesive). That translates to 9.75g of plastic per nappy, leading to 38.2kg of plastic being disposed over one child's journey to potty training (assuming 4000 nappy changes). Compared to a reusable nappy, the difference is stark: one All-in-One nappy contains 50% plastic which is obviously more, but using just 20 nappies from birth to potty leads to just 1.34kg of plastic being disposed of. Further reductions can be made if the nappies are used for a second child, and by using different styles of nappies. Using TotsBots as an example, a complete Bamboozle set is only 19% plastic which - based on 20 nappies and 4 covers - equates to just 600g of plastic waste being sent for disposal at end of life.
Some reusable nappy companies are decreasing their plastic impact even further by using recycled plastic to create their waterproof covers: TotsBots save two bottles from landfill for every cover they manufacture; Kit+Kin have created their cloth nappies with a material made from recovered fishing nets and other nylon waste.
There are also some disposable nappy companies that create their nappies from eco friendly materials (Kit+Kin, Mama Bamboo, Eco by Naty), and it is definitely worthwhile looking into using these if you are using disposables at all, because they often source more ethical and sustainable materials and use environmentally friendly methods of production. A lot of these nappies also claim to biodegrade quicker than normal disposable nappies, but there are some issues with this - leading us nicely on to our next section!
An average child uses between 4000 - 5000 disposable nappies until they are potty trained. Consequently, in the UK up to 3 billion nappies are sent to landfill or burnt each year, a massive 400,000 tons of waste - and nearly 6,000 tons are thrown away worldwide each day. Disposable nappies contribute to 2-3% of all British household waste.
Each nappy can take up to 500 years to biodegrade, meaning there are trillions of nappies still sitting in landfill. Every single nappy your parents threw away - if they used disposables - is still out there somewhere, releasing methane into the atmosphere.
Reusable nappies can last years before going to landfill, and even then only contribute 20 nappies to the waste system. There are also plenty of ways to keep using your nappies after they've filled their purpose, and there are also companies out there who take old reusable nappies and turn them into other products (such as tiny nappy keyrings!), meaning their life cycle is extended even further.
The claims made by the eco-friendly disposable brands that their nappies biodegrade quicker than regular disposables have been backed up by tests that have shown some parts can decompose in under 10 years. However, some experts have queried whether these tests directly replicate landfill conditions which are often crowded and lack oxygen. Additionally, some councils burn all their landfill waste which creates significant amounts of carbon emissions and negates the biodegradable impact of these nappies. However, in the right conditions, 10 years is a lot better than 500 years so again, if you are using disposables, it is worth looking into using more environmentally friendly brands.
The other issue with landfill is that the disposable nappies still have their waste inside them, so this decomposes with the rest of the nappy, eventually ending up into the water system. Poo in reusable nappies goes directly into the household waste system and is treated like the rest of the household's waste.
The Environment Agency's 2008 report found that over the two and a half years a child is, on average, expected to be in nappies, the carbon emissions of reusable nappies amount to 570g of carbon vs 550g from disposables.
The reason for this is that, while the disposable nappies create a lot of carbon emissions in manufacture that reusables don't, reusable nappies have to be washed and dried, which uses energy. These figures were based on washing the nappies on a 60°C wash cycle and tumble drying 1 out of 4 washes - which is a fairly standard washing routine amongst cloth nappy users.
There are ways to reduce the carbon emissions produced by washing, however, such as always doing as full a load as possible (your drum should be 3/4 full), hanging every single wash out to dry (or inside on racks), using an energy efficient washing machine, and washing on a lower heat cycle (though only do this if you are confident it will wash your nappies clean!).
The report did not take into consideration the carbon emissions caused by disposables sitting in landfill. It is estimated that the 5,000 nappies a child uses could release 630kg of methane into the atmosphere over the 500 years before they have fully decomposed. Obviously that's not a significant difference year to year, but given the amount of nappies decomposing in landfill, it adds up!
The Environmental Agency report concluded that, overall, reusable nappies are up to 40% better for the environment than disposable nappies. The carbon emissions can be managed by more energy efficient washing and drying, and the reduction in waste is extremely significant.
But let's say you're still not sure about using reusable nappies full time. Even just using one reusable nappy from birth to potty every day can save up to 900 nappies from going to landfill. 750,000 babies are born in the UK each year. If every single one of those babies wore one reusable nappy a day until they potty trained, it would save a staggering 300 million nappies from going to landfill. That's a good start.
If you would like to look into using reusable nappies on a trial basis, get in touch. We have lots of different options available, and can help you get on your way to using reusable nappies confidently, content in the knowledge that you're helping the environment in a big way.
To help us continue to provide nappies to local families in the Liverpool area, helping reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, please consider donating to our crowdfunder. Your support is hugely appreciated!