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Three billion disposable nappies are thrown away every year in the UK – or 8 million every day – that’s a lot of waste to end up in landfill or, even worse, in the sea. Nappies can take hundreds of years to degrade, so reusable cloth nappies are a good environmentally-friendly alternative.
The main disposable nappy brand in the UK is Procter & Gamble’s Pampers and most supermarkets now offer their own brands. The bulkiest component of disposable nappies (or diapers, as they are known in the US) is paper pulp fluff, the rising demand for which is beginning to threaten old-growth forests in Canada, Scandinavia and the Baltic states. Valuable wetlands, moors and meadows risk being destroyed in the quest for new plantations.
Other components of nappies include plastics and chemicals derived from nonrenewable sources. There is controversy about the safety of some commonly-used chemicals such as the absorbing agent sodium polyacrylate. Babies with sensitive skin may react to absorbent gels.
The average baby gets through about 5,000 nappies on his or her way to being potty trained. Disposables are commonly binned or, much worse, flushed away. Putting them in the bin without first cleaning off waste is unhygienic and, though few people know it, actually illegal. Chucking them down the toilet happens far too commonly, and they can cause serious maintenance problems in sewers and sewage farms. Many of them also end up in the sea.
The nappy debate
In 2005 the Environment Agency published a report on the comparable environmental impact of disposable and reusable ‘terry’ nappies, which came to the controversial conclusion that there was little or no difference between the two. It found that the use of fossil fuels involved in cleaning reusable nappies outweighed the impact of production for disposables, and suggested that parents should be free to choose the type of nappy that suits them best.
Nevertheless, the report recommended that nappy manufacturers should:
- Consider using recycled paper in their products
- Use renewable energy for the production process
- Seek out sustainable sources of pulp from managed forests
- Investigate technology for recycling disposable nappies
- Lower the weight of their products
The Women’s Environmental Network criticised the report, saying the research was ‘seriously flawed’. In particular, it drew attention to the recommendation that nappy companies aim to reduce the weight of their nappies, even though lighter superabsorbent polymers have a higher environmental impact. The Network suggests that the global warming potential of real nappies can be reduced by using an ‘A’ rated washing machine (see Good Home and Office, page 104), washing at 60ºC and air-drying rather than using a tumble dryer.
Reusable nappies really do offer a viable alternative to disposables. Only a small percentage of UK parents use them, but there is much higher use of re-usables in North America and Australia.
Terries used to be seen as hard work, but washing machines have reduced this and there are plenty of nappy washing services available around the country, some run by local authorities. There are also many new varieties, with specially fitted shapes and pin-free fastening systems, and re-usable overpants for added safety and comfort. The Real Nappy Association advocates the use of thin liners placed inside a terry, allowing solid waste to be peeled away and safely disposed of. These are biodegradable.
Real nappies help to counter nappy rash as they are breathable. But perhaps the best argument for them is the saving in cash terms – total nappy expenditure has been estimated at £250 for re-usables compared with as much as £700 – £1,000 per baby for disposables.
Ethical Comparison – Nappies Rankings Detailed Table
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LAST UPDATED: 2017