carbon footprint of disposable nappy


Environmental campaigners are urging the UK government to take immediate action following a recent analysis that highlights a significant disparity between the carbon footprints of washable and disposable nappies.

According to a report commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), reusable nappies have been found to possess 25% less global heating potential compared to single-use nappies. The study also reveals that the environmental impact associated with the production of single-use nappies is nearly nine times greater, and nearly 10 times greater when it comes to their disposal.

However, the report presents a mixed picture, as reusable nappies receive a worse impact score in 11 out of 18 categories, primarily related to water and electricity usage during washing and drying processes.

Although disposable nappies constitute one of the largest contributors to global plastic waste, a life cycle analysis conducted in 2005 stated that there was “little or no difference between the environmental impact of reusable and disposable nappies.” This led to a lack of action from policymakers, prompting campaigners to argue that the government bears a responsibility to facilitate the transition to reusable nappies for parents.

“We’ve seen the British government be really bold on lots of stuff to do with single-use plastic,” said Elisabeth Whitebread of the Nappy Alliance campaign group. “We’ve had the first plastic packaging tax in the world, we’ve recently seen them banning single-use plastic cutlery and plates, but by the number of items, as well as the weight and volume, nappies represent a much greater contribution to single-use plastic waste.

“This clearly needs policy initiative but also awareness raising – so many people don’t even think about nappies as a single-use plastic.”

Hilary Vick, a founder of the washable nappy service Nappy Ever After, added: “The playing field is unequal because parents and carers have the task and the expense of washing nappies and the time it takes, and yet the disposal of nappies is free. They’re readily available in supermarkets, which makes it seem normal – governments and local authorities have a responsibility to go against those norms.”

While Defra’s report marks a significant step forward for the reusable nappy industry, it reveals that single-use nappies only fare worse in seven categories, including global heating potential, land use, fossil resource scarcity, and water use in manufacturing. However, campaigners emphasise that these effects are particularly crucial given the ongoing climate crisis.

In contrast, reusable nappies score worse in areas such as marine eutrophication, freshwater ecotoxicity, mineral resource scarcity, marine ecotoxicity, and water consumption. The primary factors contributing to these effects are the water, detergent, and electricity usage involved in washing and drying nappies, as well as the flushing of faeces.

To reduce their impact, the report suggests that parents can utilise energy-efficient washing machines, opt for air drying instead of tumble drying, and consider passing nappies on to a second child.

The Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association (AHPMA) highlights a 28% reduction in the global heating potential of disposable nappies since 2005, attributing it to improved technology that has resulted in smaller nappies and reduced material usage during production. Comparatively, the reduction in global heating potential for reusable nappies stands at 38.5%.

The industry body argues that the disparity in CO2 impact highlighted by the recent report may not be as significant as it initially appears. It draws attention to the report’s comparison of 2.5 years of disposable nappy use to 6.4 round-trip car journeys from London to Nottingham (1,622 miles), while reusables amount to 4.8 journeys (1,223 miles) – a difference of 400 miles.

“This should reassure parents and carers that both options represent responsible choices for babies, as they also consider performance, skin health benefits, and convenience when deciding on the best nappy option based on their individual family needs and lifestyles,” the AHPMA added.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We are committed to maximising resources and minimising waste, and are reviewing the findings of this analysis.”



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