Navigating the Eco-Friendly Nappy Market

After looking at the not so sunny side of single-use nappies in the previous entries, unravelling the Environmental Legacy of Baby Nappies, finding more eco-friendly alternatives seems a natural progression. There are numerous options available which not only minimise our ecological footprint, but also prioritise the health and comfort of our little ones. From reusable nappies to innovative eco-conscious alternatives (including biodegradable materials), navigating the nappy market can feel like diving into a sea of options, each claiming to be the most eco-friendly choice. With a barrage of green terminology and eco-conscious claims, it's understandable to feel overwhelmed and uncertain about which claims are genuine or how fulfillable they are depending on where we live. 

But fear not! In this blog, we’ll try to shed some light on the pros and cons of some of the alternatives to disposable nappies. Before we start, we want to reiterate how at Water Babies, we value and respect the choices families make regarding nappies. Our aim is to raise awareness about the environmental impact of disposables and to support those interested in exploring more sustainable options, without judgement. 

So, without further ado, let’s start surfing through the main benefits and limitations of some eco-friendly alternatives to disposable nappies! 

Beyond the Hype: Decoding Biodegradable Nappies 

One option touted as a solution to the environmental conundrum posed by traditional nappies is the use of "biodegradable" or "compostable" alternatives, offering the convenience of single-use products, with seemingly less environmental impact. However, we need to address how the majority of these biodegradable or compostable nappies still incorporate plastic components, typically in the form of adhesive tabs or outer films. According to Dr. Charlotte Lloyd, an environmental biogeochemist at the University of Bristol, who has studied nappies available in the UK, even the best examples of these nappies are composed of approximately 80% biodegradable materials. While using less plastic is always beneficial, any amount of plastic makes the nappies un-compostable, as the plastic will contaminate the output. 

In addition, Lloyd explains how once used, the biodegradable materials within these nappies are often encapsulated within the outer shell when rolled up and secured with adhesive tabs. Consequently, when disposed of in landfills, where many nappies ultimately end up, these biodegradable materials are deprived of the oxygen necessary for decomposition. As a result, despite the higher cost associated with biodegradable options, they still contribute to landfill accumulation, rather than breaking down as intended. 

Eliminating fossil-fuel plastic is only part of the solution. Even nappies crafted from sustainably sourced FSC-certified bamboo, and complemented by compostable bioplastic liners, offering parents a truly eco-conscious alternative, presents their limitations. Compostable nappies are designed to break down in hot composters, which are not widely accessible, or in industrial composters, which are not readily available nationwide in the UK. Compostable nappies which aren’t properly separated, collected and composted, end up entering the existing waste streams. 

The Potential of Reusable Nappies 

We know reusable nappies come with their own limitations too. The manufacturing process generates waste and polluting emissions to the air, water, and soil. For example, trucking cotton from farms to the factories generates transportation emissions, processing the raw materials might include energy-intensive heating and cooling processes to take place in industrial gins, spinners and weavers. On top of that, cotton fertilizers are a major greenhouse gas emitter. But there’s an important difference when comparing its manufacturing process to traditional nappies: the environmental impacts associated with the production of reusable nappies occur only once and are then spread out over the number of times the product is reused, lessening with every reuse, and as countries transition to low-carbon electricity. 

Another consideration for reusable nappies is the amount of water and energy consumed during the usage phase, particularly during the laundering process. As described  in ‘End-of-life management of single-use baby diapers: Analysis of technical, health and environment aspects’, in Europe, wash cycles in washing machines typically consume 75 litres of water per load (3kg per average load), along with energy consumption of 1.19 kWh at 60°C and 2.06 kWh at 90°C. Research indicates  it takes nearly 85,000 litres of water to launder the cloth nappies used by one baby throughout their life. 

In addition, during wash cycles, detergents and softeners used do also require resources for their production, contributing to water and soil pollution, as well as human exposure to hazardous compounds. Washing machines typically use at least 135g of detergent per wash, containing chemicals such as nonylphenol, tetraacetylethylenediamine, sodium carbonate, and anionic surfactants, as specified by the UNEP in 2021. Additionally, according to the UK Environment Agency, 49% of reusable nappy users employ softeners at an average dose of 100g per wash cycle. Softener products typically consist of 10% cationic surfactants and 90% water. 

So yes, it’s true reusable nappies can still pose environmental challenges during their manufacturing and cleaning processes. As we’ve just seen, they require energy, which often comes from non-renewable sources, and renewable materials like cotton, bamboo, and hemp, as well as other resources such as water, fossil fuels, and chemicals. But because cloth nappies -also known as “real nappies” among its advocates- are reusable, they do not contribute to waste generation and landfill accumulation at the same rates than their disposable counterpart.  

In addition to the above, some of their main environmental impacts depend on factors on which we can act, such as our behaviour as consumers, our laundering and drying practices, and whether the reusable nappies are passed on for use by other children. In contrast, studies comparing the life cycles of single-use and reusable nappies have revealed that most environmental impacts stemming from disposables is driven by materials and the manufacturing phase and end of life phase, aspects largely beyond the control or awareness of consumers when making purchasing decisions.  

Analysing the Environmental Footprint of Reusable & Disposable Nappies 

The truth is that there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to improve the sustainability of baby nappies. Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages, both in terms of functionality and environmental impact, which must be addressed while considering the specific circumstances of production and use. In 2008, the DEFRA conducted a study comparing the environmental footprint throughout the lifecycle of various nappy options in the UK. At the time, this study revealed minimal disparities between the environmental impacts of disposable and reusable nappies. But in 2023, this study underwent an update. The new report delved deeper into analysing the carbon footprint of both reusable and single-use nappies, taking into account changes over the past 15 years. 

The good news is that both options have become more environmentally sustainable. With an increased proportion of renewable energy in our energy mix, the production, packaging, and transportation of nappies have become more efficient. Additionally, disposable nappies have become lighter and more compact, requiring less packaging and energy for transportation. But despite these improvements, the environmental impact of both reusable and disposable nappies remains substantial. The carbon footprint associated with using disposable nappies for one child up to the age of two and a half now stands at 457kg of CO₂. Reusable nappies showed a 25% reduction in global heating potential compared to their previous study from 2008, yet their carbon footprint still equated to 345kg of CO₂. 

According to the DEFRA, disposable nappies contributed to 40% more fossil fuel use than reusables due to their use of plastics. Furthermore, single-use nappies had significantly higher environmental impacts in terms of disposal, resulting in a 26% increase in freshwater eutrophication. Based on the figures from this report, The Nappy Alliance calculated in their press release ‘Getting to the bottom of the great nappy debate’ that, if every child in the UK in nappies used reusable nappies instead of single-use nappies, it would save the equivalent of 700 million car miles of CO2, the equivalent of nearly 3000 journeys to the moon in a car.  

Other figures extracted from the DEFRA report are also highlighted by The Nappy Alliance, like the fact that the environmental impact of production was over 90% lower for a reusable nappy than for disposables, using 99% less raw materials than the single-use nappies, or that the impact of the end of life of a single-use nappy is 9 times higher than for its reusable counterpart. 

The environmental impacts of reusable nappies, on the other hand, are largely due to the electricity and detergent required for washing and drying. The latter contributed to 333% more marine pollution compared to the use of disposable nappies. But in the case of reusable nappies, we could mitigate this impact: we can reduce their environmental footprint by washing nappies at lower temperatures or using more energy-efficient machines, avoiding tumble dryers, and prolonging their lifespan by passing them on to other children. 

It’s important to note that, during the production of the LCA report by the DEFRA, there was some resistance from the disposable nappy industry regarding the duration of time used in the report for a child to be in nappies. As highlighted by The Nappy Gurus, they insisted on using the figure of 2.5 years, aiming to minimize the gap in environmental impact between disposable and reusable options. However, the report acknowledges that at 2.5 years, only 37% of little ones using disposable nappies and 35% of those using reusable ones are typically potty trained. This suggests that little ones often wear nappies for longer than the data represents, potentially affecting the results. According to YouGov, the average age of children coming out of nappies in the UK has increased from 2.5 to 3.5 since 2004. It’s now around 36 months, compared to 18 months in the 1950s, effectively doubling in 2 generations. 

Parents, caregivers, and educators all around the world are more and more keen to explore alternatives that minimize our ecological footprint while prioritizing the health and comfort of our children. One “baby step” lies in the adoption of reusable nappies. We know they are not perfect, and that they carry their own environmental impact; but despite their own limitations, and while disposable nappies end up in landfills or incinerators after a single use, reusable nappies can be laundered and reused many times, significantly reducing the amount of waste generated. And that’s a good place to start. 

But by making a conscious choice to embrace sustainable practices, like swapping out disposable nappies for their reusable counterparts, we're not just keeping waste out of our landfills, our air and oceans – we're also showing our little ones how to be mindful stewards of our beautiful blue planet. 

Are you ready to take the plunge?