Since discovering that disposable nappies take 100’s of years to biodegrade and are clogging up landfill sites around the UK – about 8 million are thrown away each year – I have been a strong advocate of reusable nappies. However, I have recently discovered that some areas in the UK are recycling disposables into useful things such as bicycle helmets, benches and decking (eg Nappy Days Scotland and Green Bottoms). Thanks to Green Steve for this discovery.
So which is better?
These are my thoughts…. I found a fairly detailed research article by the Environment Agency and will use their figures when required. Click the link if you want to read it.
1. Resource Use
Reusables – there are a huge range of reusable nappies, but most have similar components. A cloth absorbent section (usually cotton, wool or bamboo – all renewable resources), a fleece and/or paper liner (fleece is a man-made fibre and non-renewable) and a water-proof outer layer, also made from non-renewable resources. So each nappy uses quite a lot of resources and there are environmental issues about all of them, from the growing of cotton which uses a lot of pesticides and water, to the transport of materials and the extraction of oil for the man-made fibres. However, each nappy can be used 100’s of times on more than one child.
Disposables are mostly made from non-renewable (oil-based) resources including the moisture-absorbing gel, plastics, velcro, polyethylene and elastic. Again there are the issues surrounding the extraction, transport and processing of oil to result in each of these materials. They often have an absorbent material which may be made from renewable fibres. Each disposable is only used once and is then thrown away, or now possibly recycled.
On resource use, I feel that reusables win especially if organic cotton (no pesticide use – problem with non-organic cotton), bamboo (less requirement for water than cotton) or wool is the main cloth material. The main reason being is that each nappy is used multiple times and can be used on many children.
2. Financial Cost
Reusables – these can be quite expensive as an up-front cost – between £200 & £400, depending on what you buy. As you also use the same nappies for further children, this does reduce the costs too. However, you can get them second-hand at local baby/toddler sales for a lot less. Just take them home and put them through a hot-wash with some BioD Nappy Fresh and they will be as good as new, no bugs, bacteria or other nasties. We were given our first set (birth to about 8 months) and have bought a couple of new outers (£20). We bought our second set (8 months to potty training) for £35 at a NCT second hand sale and also bought a few new outers (about £20). So purchasing costs for us total £75, ie £37.5 per child! We do use paper liners at about £2.50 for 100 and estimate that we get through about 10 rolls per year, so total cost is £62.50 per child.
However, there are the added washing and drying costs. For a newborn I do a nappy wash every other day, but this reduces to 1 every 3 days for a toddler, this amounts to about 355 nappy washes over 2.5 years of nappy wearing. Using the manufacturer’s data on energy and water consumption and our bills, I estimate that we spent £71 to wash Monkey’s nappies over 2.5 years, with perhaps about another £70 on detergent cost (Soap nuts or BioD Washing liquid & Tea-tree oil for soaking). Over the year I tumble dry about 50% of the nappies (one of my eco-compromises). For us the drying cost worked out to be about £80 over 2.5 years.
So our total nappy cost per child is about £321!
Disposables – you will need between 4 & 8 a day (age dependent), each one costing between 10 and 25p, depending on what type of nappy you buy and whether you buy in bulk or not, for on average 2.5 years. So taking an average of 6 nappies at 17.5p/nappy for 912.5 days, you get a cost of £958.12 per child.
Umm, I think the reusables clearly win! Even if you bought them new for £250 or so for only one child, this would still be cheaper than disposables.
Resusables – these can be sold or passed on once your little ones are potty trained and used for other children. The cloth part will easily biodegrade at the end of its life, though you could use old nappies as rags before they end up in the bin (or compost). The fleeces, again, can be reused as rags or to make a rug, and will biodegrade slowly. The waterproof outer will eventually biodegrade, but it will be slow and will take landfill space.
Disposables – most disposable nappies in the UK either go to landfill or are burnt in incinerators. A recycling plant has opened in the Midlands in 2011 and more are planned. Landfill is primarily an issue due to space – most counties estimate that they have between 5 & 10 years of landfill space left at our current rates of use. Obviously, if more things are recycled and we reduce how much we waste, the time will increase. With between 4,000 and 6,000 nappies per child going into landfill (about 40 large bin-bags full) – you can see how the problem adds up!
Incineration does produce less end-product for landfill and can produce heat and/or electricity for the local area. There are, however, still concerns about the health impact of incinerators including adult & childhood cancer and birth defects (see report by British Society for Ecological Medicine). This report notes that the foetus, infant and child are at most risk from incinerator emissions. So incineration is not a good option for parents.
Recycling will reduce the volume of nappies going to landfill, but it also has problems – transporting the nappies from around the country to the (currently) only recycling facility in West Bromwich; the energy and resources used in sterilizing, separating and recovering the re-usable parts of the nappy and then making these into the new products. However, the company involved in developing these recycling plants estimates that recycling reduces the CO2 output by up to 70% compared to landfill or incineration.
At present, most of the nappies (and other sanitary products) recycled are from commercial organisations and not homes. What would make all users of disposable nappies separate them and bag them for recycling?
For me, overall, on disposal – the real nappies win hands down. You only need (at most if using 2 different sizes) 40 nappies, 40 fleece liners and 14 outers and this will do you 2 children (or more). Even if they do then go to landfill, the most bulky items (the nappies) biodegrade quickly.
Reusables – it does take a bit of extra time and organisation to ensure that your nappies are clean, dry and ready for use.
Disposables – always ready, so long as you have remembered to stock up!
A winner for disposables.
5. Climate Change Cost
I am using the Environment Agency Report mentioned above for this information – it is based on data from 2006/07 and there are limitations to the report, especially in regard to the variety of reusable nappies now available.
The report bases its findings on the life-cycle of both types of nappies, including extraction of raw materials, manufacture, transport, use and through to disposal.
Reusables – essentially your climate change impact depends on how you wash and dry your nappies. On average, over the 2.5 years a child is in nappies they will produce 570Kg of Carbon Dioxide (emissions from creation of nappies to disposal of nappies). However, if you wash at 60°C, always use a full load and always line-dry, you can reduce this by about 200Kg of Carbon Dioxide (the equivalent of driving a car 1,000Km).
Conversely, if you wash every time at 90°C and always use the tumble drier, you can increase the carbon impact by 420Kg of Carbon Dioxide per child.
Disposables – the Environment Agency Report calculated that on average, disposable nappies created 550Kg of Carbon Dioxide per child over the 2.5 years of use, most of which is produced in the manufacturing process of the nappies. So further reductions in Carbon Dioxide are largely in the hands of the manufacturers.
My verdict on contribution to Climate Change is with the reusables as the control is in the hands of the user and not manufacturers
So, overall, though I would agree it is not clear-cut and this is a brief summary of the issues, I do believe that reusable nappies are the best for the environment and our wallets, especially if they are used by more than one child.
I more than welcome your thoughts and comments…..