Unfortunately, it is very hard to accurately quantify the overall environmental impact of real nappies vs disposables. Different nappies are manufactured differently, using different levels of energy use and resources. Real nappy usage varies from individual to individual – some people boil wash and tumble dry, others wash at 30 and line dry. Some people use their real nappies on 2, 3 or even 4 children, thereby reducing the energy from manufacture per use. For disposables its more straight forward; once used they go in the bin and in most cases end up in landfill where they can take up to 500 years to rot away.
Well, the closest answer we have at present came from the Environment Agency’s 2008 report “An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies”. This report looked at the lifecycle of a nappy – in other words, its manufacture and use. It did not attempt to address what happens to a nappy after it is taken off your baby’s bum.
The report made various assumptions and I obviously won’t list them all here. However, the key assumptions as regards real nappy use were:
- Nappies are used on one child only
- Nappies are washed at 60 using an averagely rated machine
- Nappies are line-dried 75% of the time and tumble dried for 25% of the time
- Nappies are pre-washed before every main wash cycle.
- Nappies are mainly washed alone, rather than with other laundry.
Based on these assumptions, the report found that the overall impact of real nappies was roughly the same as that of disposables. However, the report stated that the conclusion is highly dependant on the way that real nappies are laundered.
So, for instance, washing in fuller loads would reduce the overall impact of real nappies by 16%. Line drying rather than tumble drying reduces the overall impact by the same amount. If you assume that nappies are washed in fuller loads, line dried and reused for a second child, then the overall impact of real nappies works out at 40% lower than that of disposables.
Unfortunately, some ambiguity just means that the different camps can quote the figures that show themselves in the best light! But to me the report seems to say that if you wash and dry sensibly, then you really can make an environmental difference.
Looking at the assumptions used, there are many I don’t fully agree with. I rarely washed at 60, for instance, generally preferring to wash at 40. And I don’t own a tumble dryer! Best of all, my nappies saw me through my two boys and then went off to an orphanage in Tanzania.
Another important point is that with real nappies you are in control. Want to reduce the impact of your real nappies? Fine, you could wash them at 40 and line dry them. Want to reduce the impact of your disposable nappies? Erm well, you could use less of them I suppose….
As I mentioned above, the biggest problem with the 2008 report is that it does not consider what happens to the nappy afterwards. So no allowance is made at all for the issue of nappies going to landfill. Which seems to me to be missing the point somewhat. Even if this report had concluded that disposables are better for the environment, would that mean that we suddenly found the space to put the 8 million disposable nappies we throw away each day in the UK? Of course not. I am glad that the issue was looked at, but I wonder if there is much real benefit in the conclusions when the main point of difference was ignored. The report considers the reuse of reusable nappies, but not the disposal of disposables.
For more information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blog provided by Vicki Jordan at Real Choice Nappies.