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  • Environmentally Friendly Nappies

    If you want to use fewer nappies you’d be better off having a girl. By the age of two-and-a-half 90 per cent of girls but only 75 per cent of boys are out of nappies. Clearly this is not something that we can choose, but we do have a choice as to what sort of nappy to buy.

    The main choice in nappies is between disposables, which are the most popular, and reusables, which are generally assumed to be the eco-friendly option. But this eco-choice is not as clear as it appears.


    Certainly, reusable nappies mean that much less waste is sent to landfill – around 2.5 billion nappies are thrown away in the UK each year (about 7 million a day). This accounts for 2.4 per cent of all household waste. On the other hand, reusable nappies use far more energy in washing and drying and are therefore worse for climate change.

    Also, disposable nappies are less bulky than they were: there has been a 40 per cent reduction in the volume of material used in the last 15 years. In part this has been achieved by using an extremely absorbent gel which soaks up the liquid and keeps the baby dry.

    However, this gel is made of a plastic material, which doesn’t rot and so adds to the debate about nappy biodegradability.

    Another issue to consider is that the pulp used in nappies comes from forests. Nappy manufacturers should be making sure all the pulp is FSC-certified, guaranteeing it comes from sustainable sources.

    Most people think it would be a good thing for nappies to biodegrade in landfill sites. Disposable nappies are certainly more biodegradable than they were: an unused nappy is around 50 per cent biodegradable, whereas a used one is on average 80 per cent biodegradable.

    But laws covering landfill sites are aimed at reducing the amount of biodegradable waste put into them. The greenhouse gases released from the rotting waste are difficult to capture from this source.

    The good news is that nappies can be composted in industrial systems that collect the methane released, which can then be used for fuel.

    This approach is being developed in the Netherlands, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t also work in the UK. Currently, 90 per cent of our disposable nappies end up in landfill sites. I think manufacturers – and local government – should be doing a lot more to change this by helping to set up composting systems for biowaste, including nappies.

    Whilst the eco-credentials of disposables come down to the design of the product, for reusables it’s largely down to the user.

    Unfortunately, nappies are a bit of an exception in that they need to be washed at 60°C to get rid of the nasty bacteria. But if you use a disposable liner in a reusable nappy, or put the nappy in bleach before washing, you can put them in a 40°C, or even a 30°C wash like the rest of your clothes. Most of all, avoid using tumble dryers because they’ll eliminate any eco-benefit you may have accumulated.

    As we all know, nappies can be very smelly, and a lot of people are meticulous about wrapping them up in plastic bags, sometimes in multiple layers. If you’re out and about this may make sense.

    But at home I think putting them directly into a bucket with a lid, and emptying it regularly, should be enough. And there’s absolutely no point in buying degradable bags for your partially biodegradable nappy that’s on its way to landfill.

    My verdict: I’m afraid the choice between disposable and reusable nappies is not clear-cut. You have to decide whether you’re more concerned about waste, in which case you’d choose reusables, or climate change, in which case you’d go for disposables.

    If you go for disposables, it’s worth asking the manufacturer about their policy on sustainable forestry and promoting composting systems. If systems were in place to collect biogas from disposable nappies, I think they’d be a clear winner over reusables in terms of their eco-impacts.

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