Disposable nappies: What's their environmental cost?

baby having nappy put onImage source, Getty Images

Disposable nappies have been in the firing line at the Conservative Party conference, as Environment Secretary Michael Gove hinted at a future ban.

He later clarified his comments to say that nappies wouldn't be banned but suggested they could be part of plans to "tackle waste better".

So what is the environmental cost of single-use nappies?

An estimated three billion nappies are thrown away every year in the UK, accounting for 2-3% of all household waste, according to recycling charity Wrap.

This is a fairly old estimate based on the number of babies and toddlers in the population and how many nappies a day the average baby uses.

It may have shifted slightly but gives a reasonable ballpark.

The vast majority of nappies are not recyclable and must be thrown away with general waste. This means they will probably end up in landfill or being burnt.

Energy can be harnessed from burning waste and used for fuel but this also produces greenhouse gases - as do landfills.

The main alternatives are:

  • cloth nappies that can be washed and reused
  • biodegradable nappies

Wrap says by the time they are potty trained, a baby could have used 4,000 to 6,000 disposable nappies, or 20 to 30 reusable nappies

There's also a financial saving to be had - although those wanting the convenience of disposables along with environmental benefits might find themselves paying more for biodegradable nappies.

Throwaway nappies contain plastic and so does the packaging they come in.

Much of this plastic will go to landfill. And so, to put it politely, will the nappy's contents, which can then end up in the water system.

When reusable nappies are washed, on the other hand, faeces end up in the waste water supply, which means they are then treated in a water treatment plant, in the same way adult waste is.

But although on many measures reusable nappies are better for the environment, they come with their own costs.

In particular, reusable nappies seem to be worse in terms of carbon emissions.

The Environment Agency, in 2008, estimated that over the two and a half years it reckoned a typical child would wear nappies, disposables would create 550kg (1,200lb) of carbon emissions. And reusables would create 570kg of carbon emissions.

That's because of the energy it takes to wash and dry them.

The carbon emissions associated with disposable nappies, on the other hand, are mainly down to the production of the materials used to construct them.

And, arguably, parents and guardians have more control over the carbon emissions created by reusable nappies.

Washing them on a full load, a more energy efficient setting or by hand, and hanging them out to dry rather than tumble-drying can all reduce the environmental impact.

But this suggests a further hidden cost - the labour involved in the extra laundry created.

The Office for National Statistics has estimated the cost of unpaid work done in households in the UK. And the unpaid work UK households undertake to do laundry alone was valued at about £90bn in 2016.

Meanwhile, the environmental impact of disposable nappies could also be reduced by changing the materials they are made of or disposing of them differently.

But these changes are in the hands of manufacturers and the waste disposal system rather than families.