The Nappy Debate
At a recent dinner party, my friend Fran and I started to discuss nappies. Fran has just completed her MSc in Environmental Strategy and was telling me about an interesting study that any parent considering using eco-nappies should know about. Thank you, Fran, for summarizing the study here for us.
With baby on the way, the eco mum makes a load of best laid plans; of course, you are going to do your best to breast feed, puree organic veg, bathe your little ‘un in environmentally sensitive products…but washing nappies for two and a half years? That’s the average for a child in the UK…and with average of over 4 changes a day over that time, that’s more than 3,700 nappies! It may well defeat all but the most committed environmentalist.
But should it? Just how bad are disposable nappies? Well, not half as bad as you may think. A study in 2005 conducted by the UK Environment Agency concluded that, when it came to assessing the environmental impact of the disposable against the reusable cloth nappy or commercial nappy services, it was too close to call. Pretty galling for those who had slaved over a hot tub all those years, doing what they thought was the ‘right thing’. How, how, how could it be right that sending kilos of waste to landfill could be the same as reusing?
It all comes down to life-cycle assessment. We tend to look at things in terms of the product itself, rather than how we use that product. So we fret over the rights and wrongs of buying air freighted beans from Kenya, completely ignoring the fact that our 5 mile round-trip drive to the supermarket generated far more emissions proportionate to the environmental impact of the beans and their share of the flight emissions. It’s not just the product and its disposal we should be concerned with, but also how that product is produced and used – the life cycle.
So it is with nappies; it’s about how you use them. Let’s cut to the chase – a single nappy, through its manufacture, use and disposal is responsible for:
- 89g of CO2 if it is reusable, washed at 60 C in a large load, line-dried and passed on to a second child (the rationale being that the CO2 generated in producing the product is spread over a longer period)
- 145g of CO2 if a disposable
- 280g of CO2 if a reusable, washed at 90 C and tumble-dried.
As the average family who go for reusables would fit somewhere between the best- and the worst-case scenarios above, the overall figure works out pretty similar to that for disposables. The impacts are just at different stages in the life cycle. Emissions from landfill only account for about 15% of the total emissions of a disposable nappy, most being associated with production, and although nappies are the single largest item sent to landfill in the UK. With home laundering, the impact is in the electricity used washing and drying and with nappy services the major impact is the transport emissions.
Put simply, if you want to be really eco, wash cool and line dry. The worst you can do is tumble dry and wash hot…(then decide it’s all too much and go back to disposables). If you decide that it’s all too much and go for disposables from the outset, it probably isn’t the end of the world. No option is perfect, but then neither are you!
Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK. Environment Agency 2005.
How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Mike Berners-Lee (Profile Books 2010).