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Nappies and the Environment

By: James Murray-White - Updated: 24 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Nappies Reuseable Disposable Polymer

Babies generally need nappies for the first two and a half years of their life until they have gained complete bladder control. Up to that point, studies from the Government Environment Agency in 2005 show that they will have produced in the region of 254 litres of urine, and 98 kilograms of faeces.

Taking the research further, this means each baby using 4.16 nappies a day, or 3,796 nappies per baby for the two and a half years! This is 8 million nappies being disposed of per day in the UK.

On top of the that, the weight of 3,796 fresh nappies is 169.5 kilograms. That weight shoots up to over 500 kg when used. This finally amounts to over half a million tons of waste in the UK every year – from just this one source. So the scale of the nappy problem, in its easily disposable yet massively problematic and polluting way, is a big one.

The Environmental Impact of Disposable Nappies

The main components of disposable nappies are cellulose fibres and polymer. These are both non-renewable resources, and consume a lot of energy in production. Both materials need a lot of water in production, but perhaps worst of all, take a long time to break down once in a landfill site. The potential toxicity of the chemicals from the disposable nappy, as well as from the mix of faeces and urine, leaching into aquatic and terrestrial systems once they have been put in landfill, is a dangerous hazard, with harmful consequences both to humans and the environment.

The Alternatives: Disposable vs Reusable

Disposable nappies are easy to buy, come in many shapes and sizes for different babies, are cheapish, and easy to dispose of.Reusable nappies are usually bought via special retail stores or via the internet, and are more expensive. The general formula for them is a soft cotton nappy, with a liner, and waterproof, breathable wraps around that. These nappies are often soaked in a sanitising fluid before being put through the laundry, and can then be tumble-dried or air-dried. The regular washing tends to make them slightly less waterproof than disposable nappies.

Nappy laundering services are more and more common these days – ask other mothers or ask at your local mother and toddler group. For a weekly or monthly charge, the nappies will be collected from the doorstep, cleaned and returned. The amount of water and electricity used in the laundering of reusable nappies, either at home or by a collection service, is the main environmental impact of using these nappies. A mother concerned about the impact upon the environment has to balance the impact of the amount of disposable nappies going into landfill, or being responsible for using a lot more water and electricity than usual, by preferring the reusable type.

Recycling and Reusing: the Nappy Debate

There are some further ways to reduce the environmental impact of using increased water and electricity by using reusable nappies. These include:

  • Using an A rated (energy efficient) washing machine

  • Washing at a lower temperature

  • Air drying instead of tumble drying

  • Use an ecological detergent

  • Use organic products, produce in a more beneficial way to the environment

  • Reuse nappies with another baby, or swap/sell them

Ultimately, a parent must consider the (relatively limited) option in the nappy debate.But it is likely that most parents wouldn't want to hand on to their children a horrible legacy of environmental pollution – caused by the current generation’s easy disposable attitude.

A legacy of the attitude embodied in the phrase 'reduce, reuse, recycle' is ultimately more beneficial to the nappy-wearers of today.

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