Eco Tip #7

Welcome to the seventh installment of our Eco tip series, where we discuss the environmental impact of nappies and the sustainable options available!

Although convenient, the current culture surrounding baby changing is creating mountains of waste. The sustainability charity WRAP estimates that the UK disposes of a whopping 3 billion disposable nappies a year. With a child requiring between 4,000 to 6,000 disposable nappies, before they are potty trained. The main ingredients that are used to produce disposable nappies include plastics (polyethylene, polypropylene and polyester), (bleached) wood pulp and various chemicals (sodium polyacrylate, dioxins and perfumes). It can therefore take up to an astonishing 500 years for a disposable nappy to fully decompose and worse, as the nappy decomposes it breaks down and the plastics, chemicals, not to mention the content of the nappies can seep into the environment. So, what are the alternatives to single-use plastic nappies?

Some brands advertise that their products are ‘biodegradable’, which can make them sound like a far more environmentally friendly than their single-use plastic counterparts. Although these nappies tend to include more environmentally friendly materials, such as bamboo fibers, cornstarch, or wood pulp, none are yet 100% biodegradable. With most brands claiming that only 60-80% of their product is biodegradable. But even here there is a hidden catch – that 60-80% is only biodegradable if it is composted in a specific way. This means that if the biodegradable nappy is taken to landfill then it simply is not going to biodegrade. As Wendy Richards from the advice website ‘The Nappy Lady’ explains, “Disposables of any sort won’t biodegrade in landfill sites, as landfill sites are managed to keep decomposition as low as possible due to the gases and liquid that leaches out”. So, although it is possible to compost these nappies, there are very limited options available in the UK, as it is not recommended that you do it yourself at home and there are no industrial compost facilities that take nappies. However, various companies have popped up around the world offering a used nappy pick-up and composting service and so it is not unrealistic to assume that we may have one in the UK someday soon.

One option that has come back into fashion recently is reusable nappies. As the name suggests, reusable nappies can be used multiple times, with a child only requiring 20 to 30 whilst potty training. Switching to reusable nappies is estimated to reduce the average household waste of families with babies by 750kg a year – a reduction of around 50%. This would be even greater for nurseries who make the switch to reusable nappies. As nothing goes to landfill, reusable nappies are significantly better when it comes to waste and since reusable nappies can be passed down to siblings, friends or donated, their waste busting abilities can extend well beyond when a child is potty trained. Although reusable nappies will reduce waste, they do require more energy to wash and dry, which may increase your carbon emissions. However, this will depend on where you source your energy from, if you have a supplier which only uses renewable energy then the extra washing and drying will not increase carbon emissions. But if you are concerned about your energy use you could always air/line dry them away from heat for the most environmentally friendly option.

Reusable nappies are also likely to be signifacntly cheaper over the long run compared to disposable ones. Despite the larger up-front costs, families could save up to nearly £1500 (more if they have multiple children) by opting for reusable nappies. If the up-front cost is too prohibitive, there are still lots of options available for parents. For example, some councils offer an incentive scheme to try and encourage people to start using reusable nappies. Fill Your Pants have assembled a list of the different schemes offered by councils which you can find here. There is also the option to buy second hand through the Used Nappy Company, which provides a one stop shop for buying and selling real cloth nappies. There are also nappy libraries where you can learn about the different options available, get advice, and hire wipes and nappies.

Most reusable nappies come in two or three parts, with an inner cloth part which provides absorbency and then a waterproof outer wrap (often with cute designs on it). Some reusable nappies also have a removable liner which acts as a barrier to catch any waste – they can either be disposable or washable. You can get different sizes of nappy, but there is also a one-size nappy, which has poppers that you can adjust as a child grows. Cleaning resuable nappies is relatively simple. When removing the nappy, you need to flush any poo down the toilet and then place it, and any reusable liner, in a nappy bucket – you do not need to wash the wrap unless it gets dirty or at the end of the day. It is not recommended to soak the nappy before it goes in the bucket, although if it gets soiled then it is worth rinsing it through, to prevent any stains from setting. There are lots of brilliant resources and people to help you if parents are apprehensive about switching to reusable nappies or you are nervous about using them in your setting.