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Disposable Nappies (diapers) - No Worse for the Environment Than Cloth Nappies

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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 sooner?

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 pesticides.)

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 materials.


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 child.)

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 baby's life

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

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Source: BBC