Nappies and the environment

Disposable vs reusable nappies

Everyone wants the best for their baby, but they also want to make sure they are doing the right thing for the environment.

The long running debate of reusable versus disposable nappies has now been clarified by a major Government sponsored and independently reviewed study in the United Kingdom in 2005*, which was updated in 2008**.

This thoroughly documented study assessed a wide range of activities associated with manufacture, use and disposal of disposable and reusable nappies which can affect the environment.

To quote the 2008 updated report in its consideration of shaped reusable nappies: "The environmental impacts of using shaped reusable nappies can be higher or lower than using disposables, depending on how they are laundered. The report shows that, in contrast to the use of disposable nappies, it is consumers' behaviour after purchase that determines most of the impacts from reusable nappies."**

Carbon footprint of disposable and reusable nappies

In the 2008 update to the UK report, An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies**, it was found that on average, reusable nappies had a slightly higher carbon footprint than disposable nappies, when laundered under typical household conditions.***

  • For reusable nappies, the carbon footprint is heavily dependent on the conditions of washing and drying.
  • The carbon load can be anywhere between 81% higher to 38% lower than disposable nappies depending on factors such as water temperature, use of tumble dryers or line drying and use by subsequent children.
  • The update found that the carbon footprint for disposable nappies has been reduced by 12% since the previous study and continues to reduce as nappies get thinner.
  • This also means a reduction in energy, raw materials, transportation and overall waste for disposable nappies.

The study reconfirms that both nappy systems have a similar carbon footprint.

Laundering of reusable nappies

The environmental effects of reusable nappies are often not discussed. Whether washed at home or in a commercial laundry, the environmental impacts of laundering reusable nappies need to be considered.

  • Washing and drying reusable nappies uses large amounts of energy such as gas and electricity which emit carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
  • Significant water usage (around 19 tonnes for every 1 tonne of laundry washed) is also required.
  • Chemicals used, such as pre-wash soakers and detergents, add substantial loads to waste water.

Depending on the choices made by consumers these factors can result in a greater or lesser impact.

What's the verdict: do reusable nappies have an environmental advantage over disposables?

Independent and objective studies by the Australian Consumers' Association's consumer study of nappy performance since 1999, and most recently 2009 (ref), conclude:

"For years there's been an ongoing debate over which type of nappy has the least impact on the environment. While it might seem clear cut that reusable cloth nappies would be a more environmentally friendly option than disposables, in fact there are environmental costs associated with using both."****

This and the other life cycle assessment studies found that nappy alternatives have similar overall impacts on the environment in a typical usage scenario. The main differences are in the type of impact which occurs at each stage of each product's life cycle such as the manufacture of both reusable and disposable nappies, the use of water, energy and chemicals for washing reusable nappies and the landfill impact of disposables.

So, based on these studies and conclusions, we would suggest that in a typical nappy usage scenario, parents can make a guilt free choice based on non-environmental factors such as performance, cost and convenience of the product.

Nappies and landfill

The chart below shows that nappies make up around 3% of all domestic waste (measured by weight) and only 1% of landfill (total urban solid waste). Food and garden waste accounts for 59% of the total domestic waste going to landfill. Source: Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery in NSW - A Progress Report, NSW DEC Aug 2004

 Percentage Of Landfil

Innovating to reduce nappy bulk

Kimberly-Clark is committed to finding ways to reduce the impact of our products on the environment and landfill.

Over the past 10 years, we have reduced the bulk of our nappies by over half, substantially reducing their landfill impact and we continue to research ways to minimise our impact on the environment.

Footnotes:

*Simon Aumônier & Michael Collins, 2005.
Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK, Environment Agency, Bristol, UK.

**Simon Aumônier, Michael Collins, & Peter Garrett.
An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies [PDF, 37 pages, 171 kB], Science Report - SC010018/SR2, Oct 08, The Environment Agency, Bristol, UK.

***This is referred to as the 'baseline' in the updated UK Lifecycle study. This baseline scenario assumed that nappies are used on one child only, dry-pailed (not soaked in sanitising solution) and washed in a washing machine with an average energy efficiency rating for appliances owned in 2006. Average use of
tumble driers and washer-driers was taken, and it was assumed that three-quarters of nappies are line dried outside and the remainder are tumble-dried. Nappies were assumed to be washed with wraps at 60°C. It was assumed each wrap is used twice between washes. The agency considered other scenarios, but with the exception of this baseline and reuse on a second child, they considered other uses to be 'extremes rather than general practice'. 

****Choice, Nappies, Toilet Training and Bathing, (Updated 2 September 2009), Reprinted from choice.com.au - with the permission of the Australian Consumers' Association (ACA).




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