Reusable vs. disposable nappies: which is better for the environment?
By OVO Energy Monday 20 July 2015
Babies are messy little tykes. In addition to the dribble, sick and mashed banana they’re liable to smear everywhere, you’ve got ‘the other end’ to consider, too. And newborn babies go through 6-12 nappies a day, adding up to 3 billion nappies per year in England and Wales alone.
The advent of disposable nappies made the whole business a lot easier, and there are brands on the market now promising all kinds of levels of absorbency and ‘containment’, but this convenience comes at a price – and not just a monetary one. Babies use over 4,000 nappies before they’re potty-trained, and on average 5,000 nappies in total. This adds up to a whopping 400,000 tonnes of waste every year – or 2-3% of all British household waste!
As such, many environmentally-conscious parents advocate reusable nappies, which involve cloths and liners that can be washed and reused after they’ve done the job. This method considerably reduces the amount of waste going to landfill, so they’re the clear choice, right?
Well, no. A report for the Environment Agency in 2008 compared the environmental impact of both types of nappy over a two-and-a-half year period. It found that using disposables creates around 550kg of carbon emissions, where reusables could create up to 570kg of carbon emissions! Why? Because of the way they’re washed and dried.
This figure is based on washing the nappies at 60°C, drying 3 out of 4 loads on a washing line and tumbling drying the rest. Doesn’t sound like an unreasonable process, does it?
However, there are ways to bring that figure down considerably. Washing nappies on a fuller load for example, and always hanging them out to dry instead of using the energy-hungry tumble dryer. Plus, of course, using an energy-efficient washing machine! The report also found that using the nappies on a second child could bring down the associated carbon emissions by as much as 40%.
So it’s swings and roundabouts. Disposables aren’t great for the environment, but neither are reusables unless managed properly.
With that in mind, let’s look at other pros and cons of each.
Energy use: while not great for landfill, they don’t use energy through repeated washing like reusables do.
Convenience: just chuck them away when you’re done.
Absorbency: modern disposable nappies are able to hold many times their own weight in liquid.
Waste: as discussed above, you’ll be throwing away around 5,000 nappies – not an insignificant number. These will rot in landfill for 500 years, slowly releasing 630kg of methane into the atmosphere.
Cost: a big factor affecting a parent’s decisions. 5,000 disposables are likely to cost around £800 in total.
Stockage: it’s constant shopping, plus the carrying and storing of those big bulky bags.
Waste: using reusable nappies significantly reduces the amount of waste in landfill. And they save space at home too.
Price: according to the Go Real nappy information service, it’ll cost between £70 and £250, plus £1 per week in costs for washing. These savings are greater if the nappies are then used for a second baby.
Incentives: many councils offer reusable nappy incentives through cashback, vouchers or trial kits. Ask your local authority for details of a scheme in your area.
Convenience: it’s hard enough juggling the pressures of parenthood without having to find time and space to wash nappies.
Cash up front: Although cheaper in the long run, parents need to cough up between £300-£400 at the outset. Impossible for many families.
Energy use: unless managed carefully, reusable nappies can create just as many carbon emissions as disposables.
Other things to consider
If you like the idea of reusable nappies but are put off by the faff involved, considering enlisting the help of a nappy washing service. A growing number of companies will collect, launder and return your nappies.
If you’re swaying towards the convenience of disposables, but are concerned about the environmental implications, check out the more eco-friendly options available on the market. Some brands, such as Nature Babycare are made from biodegradable material, which lessen the landfill impact.
And recycling may soon be an option. New technology could make it possible to turn soiled nappies into useful materials, like cat litter and insulation.