Back to News
|A collective sigh of parental relief
was heard when the Environment Agency claimed disposable nappies
were no worse for the climate than reusable ones. But was this nappy
report a bit rash?
Parents have been seeking the bottom line on nappies for decades.
While disposable plastic nappies are the largest single-item
contributor to our landfills (where they emit greenhouse gas),
reusable cotton ones require regular energy intensive hot washes.
In truth, neither is actually a blessing for the climate - but
reusable nappies appear to be about 10% less damaging all in all.
Then again, might the real secret be to get your kids out of nappies
How will it make a difference?
According to a report commissioned by the Environment Agency, a
reusable nappy is responsible for 560kg of greenhouse gas over the
baby's first two and half years of life, whereas a disposable nappy
is responsible for 630kg. (That's equivalent to an average car
driven 1800 miles)
Dispensing with disposables in the UK would stop almost six million
nappies a day, or two billion nappies a year, ending up in landfill
where they emit methane, a greenhouse gas. Nappies account for 2% of
all household rubbish, and cost the council tax payer £67m a year
A weight of disposable nappies equivalent to 70,000 double-decker
buses go to landfill every year - enough buses to stretch from
London to Edinburgh
Disposable nappy use creates about 400,000 tonnes of waste each year
in the UK - the rough equivalent of the waste produced by a city the
size of Birmingham
Opting for reusable nappies can save a bundle of cash - in fact,
choosing reusables over disposables can halve the amount of cash the
average British parent spends on nappies according to WRAP.
What's the debate?
Reusable vs. disposable
Supporters of disposable nappies cite the
Environment Agency's (2005) report, Life Cycle Assessment of
Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK, which found reusable
nappies were not much better for the climate than disposable nappies
because of the energy demands of keeping them hygienically clean.
But the report's research methods, say the Women's Environmental
Network (WEN), were 'seriously flawed'. The WEN claims that if
cotton nappies are washed as the manufacturers recommend, at 50-60°C
in an energy-efficient machine, they have a lower climate impact
than disposables. Whether or not this makes a difference in reality
remains to be seen.
Nappies of the future
Disposable nappies are a high-energy patchwork of super-absorbent
polymers, polypropylene, adhesives, elastics and pulp, often sourced
from unsustainably logged forests. But surely, you'd think, shrewd
manufacturers will meet the need for eco-friendly disposables? Well,
up to a point - the last 15 years have seen a 40% reduction in the
volume of material used in their manufacture, but the addition of
absorbent plastic gels to the mix has actually reduced their
biodegradability. (On the other hand, reusable nappies rely on
cotton, a high-maintenance crop that soaks up fertiliser, water and
What about biodegradable nappies?
Given that nappies can take more than 500 years to degrade in
landfill, you would think that a 'biodegradable' nappy (one which
degrades much faster) would be a brilliant idea. There's no doubt
that biodegradable nappies are more environmentally-friendly - but
critics say that they are worse for the climate than conventional
disposables. When organic stuff rots it produces methane, a
greenhouse gas 23 times worse than CO2. According to Chris Goodall,
the author of How to Live a Low Carbon Life, this makes
biodegradable waste much worse for the climate than
non-biodegradable waste. That said, biodegradable nappies often
contain sustainable wood pulp and other environmentally-friendly
What's stopping me?
"Aren't reusable nappies a bit messy and awkward to use?"
Not really. The modern nappy is shaped, fitted and fastened without
the need for pins - and comes with a biodegradable liner that can be
removed and flushed down the loo.
"I heard reusable nappies are bad for my baby's health"
Both types have their problems. Resuable nappies can become
unhygienic without regular, hot washes, whereas plastic disposable
nappies may raise scrotal temperatures, potentially leading to poor
male reproductive health later in life. Contrary to popular opinion,
resuable nappies are no more likely than disposables to give your
baby nappy rash - in fact, WRAP advises that the frequency with
which nappies are changed is much more important. For more info,
read this article in Archives of Disease in Childhood.
"Disposables are cheaper"
Not true. While the initial outlay for cloth nappies can seem
expensive, they work out much cheaper in the long run compared to
disposables. In fact, WRAP estimates that parents who choose
reusable nappies end up paying less than half as much as parents who
choose disposables: £270 on average instead of £600. And reusable
nappies save you even more cash if you have a second child. (Read
our Strange but True article on the climate impact of having another
How do I do it?
Try biodegradable liners. That way you can wash the nappy at 40°C,
or even 30°C like the rest of your clothes. Without liners, it's
best to wash at 60°C to get rid of bacteria. According to WRAP,
there is no need to soak or pre-wash nappies
Wash nappies in a bigger load and use an A-rated machine
Line-dry your nappies
Try to do your own washing. Research suggests that service-laundered
washables produce more emissions than either home-laundered washable
nappies or disposables over the first two-and-a-half years of the
Try to potty-train your baby as soon as possible. Girls have the
edge from an eco perspective as statistics suggest they 'grow out'
of nappies before boys
How recycling mobile phones can benefit the
Global warming, fact or fable
Climate change: a summary of the science by
The Royal Society
Bellamy, Climate Change not Man Made
Combating climate change- China’s contribution
to the expansion of Africa’s renewable energy sector
The Climate Change Challenge for British
Do Volcanoes cause climate change
Walking to the shops damages planet
more than going by car
of Climate Change
Causes of Climate Change slammed by 140 Scientists
86 million Americans without healthcare
The truth about climate change
Renewable energy from biomass and biofuel
The 10 big energy myths
The electric car
Lessons from the Copenhagen Climate Change