Unravelling the Environmental Legacy of Baby Nappies

In our previous blog, we explored how disposable nappies have transformed from their humble beginnings in the mid-20th century into the widely used products we see today. We also took a first look into the significant environmental impact of producing single-use nappies, which involves consuming large amounts of water, energy, and raw materials. It was quite a journey!  

In this new entry, we'll be diving into the staggering number of single-use nappies thrown away each year worldwide, and the significant challenges they pose, especially when it comes to managing all the waste. Sadly, most of these nappies end up either in landfills or incinerators, adding to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, which can impact climate change. What's more, the disposal of these nappies is contributing to the global plastic pollution crisis, with plastic waste piling up in our oceans, rivers, and other bodies of water, harming marine life and ecosystems everywhere. So, grab another cuppa, get cozy, and let's continue exploring single-use nappies together. 

Piling Up: The Mounting Problem of Nappy Waste 

As we’ve been learning, when it comes to disposable nappies, their impact on the environment is hard to ignore. When they aren’t incinerated, they end up in landfills at an alarming rate, contributing to the already overflowing waste stream and posing a major global challenge. What makes matters worse is these single-use nappies are designed to last, with their durable plastics and superabsorbent polymers taking centuries to break down. With the worldwide demand for disposable nappies on the rise, finding sustainable solutions is more urgent than ever. 

In the United States, 4 million tons of disposable nappies are thrown away every year, with approximately 80% ending up in landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Australia sees around 3.75 million nappies disposed of daily, adding significantly to waste levels. Similarly, Europe adds another 8 million nappies to the mix each day, as reported in 2014

In Korea, according to the report ‘Evaluation of a Disposable-Diaper Collection Trial in Korea through Comparison with an Absorbent-Hygiene-Product Collection Trial in Scotland’, published in 2018, a whopping 240,000 tons of used nappies are generated annually, leading to environmental concerns such as, increased methane production and groundwater contamination. South Africa faces its own waste challenge, producing about 1.1 million tons of disposable nappy waste each year, according to a study published in 2020. 

In developing countries, the situation is even more dire, with a growing number of disposable nappy users and limited resources to handle the waste. With countries such as India, which has an estimated 55 million children under two years old, but only around 2% of them using disposables, or China with 40 million and only 6% in single-use nappies, the potential market is vast.  

When it comes to disposing of soiled disposable nappies, they're treated like regular solid waste. That means they’re disposed using popular disposal methods for solid waste, such as burning, composting, landfilling, and open dumping. Disposable nappies make up about 4% of solid waste, ranking as the third largest single consumer item in landfills after just one use, as per ‘Disposable Diapers: Impact of Disposal Methods on Public Health and the Environment’, published by the American Journal of Medicine and Public Health.  

It's no wonder they're adding to the ever-growing pile of waste, increasing the strain on landfills and waste management systems. According to WRAP, a climate action NGO working around the globe to tackle the causes of the climate crisis, around 3 billion disposable nappies are disposed of each year in the UK, representing an estimated 2% to 3% of all household waste.  

In a house with children, disposable nappies contribute to at least half of the total household waste. WRAP also specifies newborns can accumulate a significant carbon footprint in no time, as they typically go through 4,000-6,000 nappies before being potty-trained. According to WEN (Women’s Environmental Network), that’s 2,000 single-use nappies by baby every year, over 2.5 years. Plus, disposing of these nappies isn't cheap, with recycling contamination alone costing taxpayers millions - £1.5 million, just in North London. Weighing 9.55g, they represent up to 57.3kg of plastic waste over that time. It's time to rethink our approach to disposable nappies and find more sustainable solutions. 

Another challenge we need to address is - they take an eternity to break down. As mentioned earlier, most disposable nappies are made from wood pulp (wood fibre reduced chemically or mechanically to pulp), cotton, viscose rayon, and several plastics like polyester, polyethylene and polypropylene, according to a 2021 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Due to their synthetic materials and construction - the average disposable nappy is 61% plastic-, these nappies do not biodegrade easily. If not incinerated, they linger in landfills for centuries, not just years. And because nappies are usually thrown out with babies' waste, it’s incredible difficult to recycle them.  

Made almost entirely of petroleum-derived plastic, from the polyester exterior to a core of hyper absorbent pellets, single-use nappies take up to 500 years to break down and decompose, according to the EPA. And even then, these plastic components never completely disappear; they just get smaller and smaller, turning into microplastics. That means every nappy ever used is still out there somewhere. 

This long decomposition period exacerbates pollution and environmental degradation, posing risks to ecosystems and wildlife. Modern landfills are specifically engineered to impede biodegradation, leading to a continual accumulation of waste over time. Landfills stuffed with disposable nappies emit greenhouse gases like methane and CO2, contributing to climate change. Plus, there's the risk of harmful chemicals leaching into the soil and water, posing a threat to wildlife and ecosystems. The staggering number of disposable nappies currently resting in landfills worldwide is a concerning issue, as they release harmful chemicals like dioxins, Sodium Polyacrylate (SPA), phthalates, heavy metals, and other toxins into the surrounding soil and water. These substances pose a risk of accumulation in fish and other aquatic organisms, potentially affecting the entire food chain. Over time, this accumulation can lead to significant problems such as bioaccumulation and biomagnification, as highlighted by the World Health Organization in 2016. 

Soiled disposable nappies also contribute to the amount of human faecal waste, including microorganisms and potentially harmful pathogens, within landfills. Little ones under 12 months old are especially effective carriers of enteric pathogens (pathogens present in the human gastrointestinal tract), and inadequate management practices can lead to the contamination of groundwater by pathogens present in nappy leachates. According to the American Journal of Medicine and Public Health, these pathogens include more than 120 different viruses such as Entero-viruses, rotavirus, enteric, adenoviruses, and human caliciviruses (noroviruses); also, bacterial pathogens such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella species, Shigella, Vibrio, Clostridia, Streptococcus, and Bacillus species among others. 

Instead of winding up in landfills, disposable nappies might be burnt along with household waste in incinerators. However, this method isn't without controversy. While incinerators are designed to burn waste efficiently, they're seen as costly. Plus, there are concerns about air pollution since burning releases CO2 emissions, adding to climate change. When disposable nappies are burned, especially in facilities with inadequate pollution controls, they emit harmful substances like dioxins, furans, and other toxic greenhouse gases, as well as chlorine and carbon monoxide. This leads to toxic ash and smoke filled with pollutants like carbon monoxide and phthalates, which can harm the air we breathe. The ash, carried by wind or water, can also contaminate water sources, posing risks to both humans and the environment.  

This takes us to the troubling issue of plastic pollution in our oceans and the significant role played by disposable nappies. As stewards of water safety and advocates for sustainable practices, we'll explore how our choices regarding nappies can impact marine ecosystems, underscoring the importance of eco-conscious decisions even beyond the poolside.  

Waves of Waste: The Global Impact of Plastic Pollution in our Oceans 

As society grapples with the escalating crisis of plastic pollution, single-use nappies emerge as a significant contributor to this pressing environmental issue. According to Statista, 350 million metric tons of plastic waste are currently generated per year. In 2022, the global production of plastics surged to a 400.3 million metric tons, reflecting a rise of approximately 1.6 percent compared to 2021. Projections indicate global plastic waste production could triple by 2060, reaching an astounding one billion metric tons.  

In addition to the staggering figures above, less than 10 percent of plastic waste is currently recycled each year, with the vast majority either ending up in landfills or being incinerated, leading to the emission of harmful pollutants. Additionally, approximately a quarter of plastic waste is either mismanaged or littered, exacerbating environmental degradation. As we’ve seen with single-use nappies, mismanaged plastic waste often ends up in illegal dumpsites or is burned in open pits, and a considerable amount also enters natural environments like rivers and oceans. According to another article published on Statista, from 1970 to 2019, an estimated 30 million metric tons of plastic accumulated in the ocean, while over 100 million tons were found in rivers and lakes. This widespread presence of plastic waste in the water can cause severe harm to marine life and ecosystems. 

But to tackle this issue effectively, we must address its root causes. It's important to recognize developed countries, including the UK, play a role by exporting vast amounts of plastic waste to regions which lack the infrastructure to manage it. In recent cases, companies have been fined for illegally shipping dirty nappies and other waste abroad, highlighting the urgency of finding sustainable solutions to this global challenge. 

As we conclude our exploration of the ecological impact of single-use nappies, it's clear that their convenience can come at a significant environmental cost. From production to disposal, they contribute to resource depletion, landfill overflow, and pollution. However, as awareness of these issues grows, so does the importance of seeking alternative solutions which prioritize sustainability. It's time to reconsider our nappy choices and embrace options that are kinder to our planet, such as reusable nappies. By making informed decisions, we can pave the way for a cleaner, greener future for generations to come. Let's embark on this journey together!