Unravelling the Environmental Legacy of Baby Nappies

As the ecological repercussions of our actions become more and more obvious, we need to adopt more sustainable practices. The choices we’re all making today shape the world our little ones will inherit tomorrow. But did you know the nappies we choose for our babies can make a big difference in the environmental conversation?  

Currently, the most widespread option are disposable nappies. Since their humble beginnings in the mid-20th century, disposable nappies have skyrocketed to prominence, with a whopping 95% of European families opting for their convenience. This is also the case for over 90% of American households, which use single-use nappies exclusively, adding to a staggering 20 billion nappies a year. In the UK, which has 1.7 million children under two years old, at least 90% are using disposables. These are massive figures, but how did we get here?  

In this blog, we’ll cover how disposable nappies quickly evolved into the mass-produced items which dominate the market today. We’ll also look at the hefty environmental cost of single-use nappy production, which requires vast amounts of resources like water, energy, and raw materials. So, grab a cuppa, get cozy, and let’s dive deep into the world of disposable nappies! 

Disposable Nappies: Tracing the Timeline from Inception to Current Market 

For much of human history, if babies wore nappies at all, they were typically made from cloth which presented a significant burden for families, particularly women. From frequent leaks to hours spent on washing and drying, caring for little ones with cloth nappies was a labour-intensive task that often fell disproportionately on the shoulders of mothers and female caregivers. 

Then, in the mid-1940s, a resourceful American mum named Marion Donovan designed a baby "pant" featuring a plastic layer, using materials like shower curtains and nylon parachute fabric for her early prototypes. This invention marked the birth of the world's first disposable nappy. By 1948, Johnson & Johnson had developed the first mass-market version of Donovan's creation. A decade later, in 1961, Procter & Gamble introduced Pampers, followed by Huggies from Kimberly Clark seven years later.  

During the '60s and '70s, the two industry giants, Pampers and Huggies, continued to refine the single-use nappy and develop the machinery required for mass nappy production, as well as their marketing efforts to promote them. A significant breakthrough occurred in 1980 with the introduction of a super absorbent polymer material, originally developed for agricultural use, which allowed for much more compact nappies and even greater absorbency. Since then, single-use nappies have dominated the global nappy industry. And more than 60 years after Huggies and Pampers were first introduced, these two brands continue to control around 80% of the disposable nappy market.  

According to a report published by Grand View Research, the global baby nappy market was valued at 82.59 billion U.S. dollars in 2022. And it’s expected to grow, surpassing the value of 144.4 billion U.S. dollars by the end of 2031. Disposable nappies and/or products led the global industry in 2022, capturing the biggest share of over 65.80% of the total revenue, and it’s projected to retain its dominance throughout the forecast period. In fact, disposable baby nappies hold the largest market share in sales among all absorbent hygiene products (AHPs), which also encompass other items like menstrual pads and adult incontinence products. 

Down the Production Line: Examining the Environmental Impact of Single-Use Nappies 

While the disposable nappy industry is in very good health, single-use nappies guzzle up a hefty number of resources right from the get-go. From the vast quantities of water and energy needed to manufacture them to the raw materials like plastics and wood pulp, there is an environmental cost. 

Nowadays, most single-use nappies are made from various types of polymers and include three distinct components, each serving specific purposes:  

  1. an inner protective layer 
  2. an absorbent core layer (which includes an acquisition and distribution layer) 
  3. an outer plastic layer, as described in an article published by the Science of The Total Environment journal. 

The inner layer, crafted from a polymer-based material, acts as a barrier, shielding the absorbent core layer and safeguarding the baby's delicate skin from moisture. Typically, this layer consists of a sheet composed of polypropylene-based materials. Some variants may also incorporate pharmaceutical-grade petrolatum and stearyl alcohol to moisturize the skin and enhance comfort.  

The outer layer, traditionally made from polyethylene materials, prevents leakage from the nappy. However, the pivotal component of the nappy is the core, which absorbs and retains liquid waste. This core is typically composed of fluff pulp derived from cellulose materials or super-absorbent polymers (SAP) like sodium polyacrylate. Cellulose pulp is a renewable material mainly obtained from coniferous woods. According to the Science of The Total Environment journal, the absorbent pad requires around 200–400 kg of fluff pulp to supply one baby with disposables for 1 year (approximately one billion trees per year globally, and 4.5 trees approximately for each baby who uses them). 

We get it, single-use nappies are convenient for busy families, but they do represent significant challenges for the environment across their entire life cycle, from production to disposal. They’re gobbling up resources, polluting our air and oceans, and piling up in our landfills. Some studies such as the ‘Review on the Manufacturing and Properties of Nonwoven Superabsorbent Core Fabrics used in Disposable Diapers’, published in the International Journal of Chemical Sciences, have estimated over 23 kg of petroleum and 137 kg of wood are needed to produce single-use nappies per baby per year. Around 70% of all nappies manufactured rely on wood pulp sourced from trees. The growth of these trees before harvesting necessitates various resources such as plant nutrients, pesticides, mechanical energy, and water. With the staggering rate of tree consumption in the nappy manufacturing sector, the diversity of plant species is diminishing faster than they can be replenished through replanting efforts. 

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the industry gets through 248 million barrels of crude oil annually, while creating over 38 million tons of solid waste each year. In their report “A Circular Economy for Nappies”, they break these numbers down, revealing each single-use nappy contains one cup of crude oil. In a world in which 20,000,000 disposable nappies are produced per hour, and 73 tonnes of solid waste is created per minute, this is not a sustainable model. 

As we close this first blog on the history and environmental impacts of disposable nappy production, it's clear while they have revolutionized parenting and childcare with its convenience, they come with a hefty cost to our planet. As a multi-billion-dollar industry, disposable nappies have left a lasting imprint on both our lives and our environment. But our journey through their ecological legacy doesn’t end here. Come along with us in the next blog as we learn about the disposal of single-use nappies and the environmental effects it involves.