Last updated: March 2010
What's in your nappy?
In 2005 the UK government published a now-discredited piece of research which claimed that it was no more environmentally friendly to use reusable nappies than disposables.(1) The uproar this caused saw nappies become one of the most publicly contested of all environmental lifestyle choices.
Since then the government has reviewed its figures and conceded that using reusables could bring about a 40% reduction in carbon emissions alone.(2) And despite initial damage to some washable nappy projects(3) the reusable sector has seen a flowering of new, smaller companies, products, materials and innovations.
Changing patterns of nappy use
“The 21st Century has demonstrated in almost every consumer market available for analysis that convenience is king...[and]...there is probably no consumer group more in need of some more time and reduced effort than the parent.” Nappy Market Research Report(3)
If you ask all adults what nappies they used on their children about 60% say disposables. However if you just ask current parents with babies, then the figure rises to 90%.(3) The same piece of research suggests that, of the 10% that use reusables, only 2% do so exclusively.
Whilst these figures are pretty respectable compared to super-ethical choices in other markets, what is interesting is how people are apparently more relaxed about using washables and disposables on the same baby. Sally Hall in her book Eco Baby concurs: “There are some great washable and disposable alternatives that can...fit in with modern lifestyles. Don’t set yourself impossible goals and be disheartened if you fail to reach them. As a new parent you will be tired and stressed enough without giving yourself a hard time...It is still better for the planet if you mix and match – and you don’t have to abandon your attempts to be green if you use a disposable once in a while.”(5)
The Spirit of Nature online shopping website is even less ambitious: “...and remember – if you can work even one of our reusable nappies a day into your routine, you can dramatically help reduce landfill.”
Another way of looking at it might be in the context of 10:10 – the campaign to achieve a 10% reduction in carbon emissions in 2010. If using only reusables amounts to a 40% saving in CO2, this reduction would require roughly one in four nappy changes to be a reusable.
There are four key factors which are likely to drive the growth of reusables:
- The rapid innovation in reusable products, helping address the convenience issue
- The cost savings available through reusables (which can cost half that of disposables in the lifetime of a baby)(6)
- The increasing costs of landfill – now beginning to be passed onto householders in some areas
- The growing participation in ethical consumer behaviours (particularly around climate change).
Reducing carbon emissions
As we mentioned above, new figures from the government have conceded that significant reductions in carbon emissions are possible by choosing reusables.2 The turnaround is due to recognising that most of the impacts are in the hands of the consumer once they’ve bought the nappies. If you boil wash, bleach, tumble dry and iron (!) your nappies then, perhaps unsurprisingly, no CO2 gains will be seen. Current advice, to achieve the full 40% reduction in carbon emissions is, in the words of Go Real(7):
- Use A rated appliances powered by green energy
- Wash in full loads at no more than 60 degrees
- Avoid tumble drying – hang outside or use an airer
- Store used nappies in a lidded bucket – no need to soak
- Use an eco detergent but don’t use fabric conditioners or chemical sanitisers
- Use washable liners and wipes/flannels
- Never iron your nappies!
Pass them on – reuse on another baby or sell them on.
According to the Environment Agency, using reusables for two and a half years saves 200kg of CO2, which is equal to driving a car about 1,100km.(2)
Another reason to choose reusables
Rarely in the compilation of an Ethical Consumer report has the cultural divide between mainstream manufacturers and the ethical alternatives been so wide. On one side we have Procter & Gamble, maker of Pampers nappies, which sells a stunning 60% of all disposables in the UK.(3) It is the 22nd biggest corporation in the world.(8) Its 2009 sales of $79 billion are slightly larger than the GDP of Bangladesh (population 160 million), or the combined GDPs of Tunisia and Kenya.(9) The full Research Report for this article reveals a range of criticisms for P&G including: air pollution in the USA; habitat destruction (palm oil); use of genetically engineered mice in animal testing; operations in tax havens, and more.
On the other side we have some tiny family businesses who began life stitching reusable nappies around the kitchen table (Swaddlebees), expanded to employ six people part time (Nature Babies), who are committed to only use organically certified products (Imse), and who are looking to maximise the ethics of their supply chains (Totsbots).
In the reusable nappies Company Profiles we focus on how these small businesses are trying to hold on to ethical values in their supply chains as their businesses grow. Although the information they provide is self-declared and not independently verified, there is a refreshing openness in their manner which gives a glimpse of how the internet can give us real insights about how the products we use are made.
Disposable by numbers
Dispensing with disposables in the UK would stop almost six million nappies a day, or two billion nappies a year, ending up in landfill. Nappies account for 2% of all household rubbish, and cost the council tax payer £67m a year. A weight of disposable nappies equivalent to 70,000 double-decker buses go to landfill every year – enough buses to stretch from London to Edinburgh. Disposable nappy use creates about 400,000 tonnes of waste each year in the UK – the rough equivalent of the waste produced by a city the size of Birmingham.(17)
Aren’t reusables expensive?
Our price comparison tables for this report have calculated the average price for an all-in-one reusable nappy to be £12.28, and for a disposable nappy to be 14 pence.
On average it is recommended that to use reusables you need around 20 nappies – which would therefore cost £245.60.
It is estimated that a small baby tends to need around ten changes per day, reducing to around 6 per day as they get older. We calculated this to average around 2,918 nappies per year, which at 14p each would cost £408.52 in disposables – just for the first year.
We calculated that the cost to wash one nappy would be around 0.75p.18 Washing a year’s worth (2,918 nappies) would therefore work out at £38.90. Over the two and a half years a baby will be in nappies, the average cost of disposables would therefore be £1,021, and reusables £342.85.
Huggies – Forest Campaign Success
In August 2009, after a five year campaign on sustainable logging by Greenpeace, Kimberly Clark set a goal of ensuring that 100% of the fibre used in its products will be from ‘environmentally responsible sources’. Kimberly-Clark is the world’s largest manufacturer of tissue paper products with global brands like Kleenex and Andrex – as well as Huggies nappies.
Michael Conroy, a specialist in certification schemes was quoted in Grist magazine: “This is a huge victory for global forests, the FSC, and Greenpeace. The nature of the commitments, the specific timetables provided, and the Kimberly-Clark agreement to report back regularly on what proportion of the fibre sourced for its tissue has come from recycled and FSC-certified sources makes this a very credible commitment.”(13)
The company also committed to end the purchase of non-Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) fibres from Canada’s boreal forest by 2011. For its part, Greenpeace dropped the Kleercut campaign which focussed on Kimberly Clark’s environmental transgressions.
Conroy also pointed out that the conclusion of Kleercut, which “used print media, social networking, YouTube videos, and incredibly creative ways to wear down Kimberly-Clark’s resistance, shows that the new tools for communicating with consumers are bringing even more power to civil society as we seek to transform the social and environmental practices of the world’s largest corporations.”(13)
Choosing disposable nappies
Since the 1960s disposable nappy manufacturers have increasingly replaced paper with super-absorbent polymers (mainly sodium polyacrylate) which can hold many times their own weight in water. Further innovations have brought a range of plastics for coating and sealing, as well as perfumes, fragrances and dyes. This has meant that the likelihood of such products ever being broken down in the environment – even over hundreds of years – is continuing to recede. It has also led to a wave of ‘greener’ disposable nappies which claim to address some of these issues (as well as problems with paper supply and manufacture) for concerned parents.
Bambo Nature is the only ‘green nappy’ to be independently accredited – in this case by the usually-reliable Nordic Swan ecolabel. It requires some sustainability in the pulp supply chain. The product also avoids perfumes and other chemicals and features an absorbent starch core.
Moltex Oko contains minimal amounts of gel and no perfumes. They claim to be compostable.
Nature Babycare although not gel-free, it claims to be based on biodegradable materials and to be chlorine free.
Tushies are the only nappy to use absolutely no gel at all, relying on wood pulp and cotton for absorbency.
Supermarket own-brands – Both Sainsbury and Asda produce an ‘eco-nappy’ option claiming greater proportions of biodegradable materials.
Because landfill sites are compacted and covered, decomposition rates are slow. According to one London local authority, a disposable nappy can take between 100 years and never to decompose, and a biodegradable nappy (by inference) between 5 months and 50 years.(15) However, because decomposition in landfill produces methane, (a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than CO2) some commentators such as Chris Goodall, the author of How to Live a Low Carbon Life, have argued that this makes biodegradable waste much worse for the climate than non-biodegradable waste.
Some people have looked to home composting as an answer for ‘compostable’ disposables. Kay Wagland from Women’s Environmental Network has argued that, as “the average baby produces around 40 nappies a week...that’s a very large and smelly compost heap!”16 The Irish website www.ecobaby.ie suggests that an eight foot by four foot timber unit might work.
Because of decomposition problems, others have looked for different solutions. In April 2008, Canadian firm Knowaste announced plans to build the UK’s first nappy recycling plant in Birmingham. The company breaks apart and sterilises disposable ‘hygiene products’ and claims to be able to separate and recycle all the constituent parts.
Practical issues around collecting nappies from consumers mean that the bulk of its work has been around hospital waste to date. Neither reusable nor disposable manufacturers seem very keen on this innovation at present and a carbon emissions analysis would be interesting to see. www.knowaste.com
"Take a look around and you will find disposable nappies everywhere - cluttering up the waste bins of public toilets, thrown on beaches, pitched out of car windows...and most worryingly in our landfill sites... Travellers to the foothills of the Himalayas and to ancient native sites in Canada have reported a trail... of discarded disposable nappies as far as the eye can see."
Sally J Hall, 'Eco Baby:A Green Guide to Parenting'.
Abena (Bambo Nature) is a medium sized Danish company making nappies and other disposable healthcare-related goods. Although a member of the UN Global Compact, it does not score well at reporting on its environmental and social impacts.
Ontex (Moltex Oko) is a Belgian disposable nappy specialist making own brand nappies for retailers across Europe. In January 2010, it was described as being owned by the Dutch private equity company Candover. Since Candover is actively seeking to sell Ontex we have not linked the companies for the ranking in this report.(11)
Naty AB (Nature Baby) is a relatively small Swedish company which in some ways resembles a reusable nappy manufacturer. It was founded by Marlene Sandberg, a Swedish mother and a champion of environmental causes, and focusses solely on “environmentally aware ecological options in personal care products.”
Hain Celestial Group (Tushies) is a strange creature. It is one of a new generation of multinational ‘Natural and Organic’ food specialists. Its more familiar brands for UK consumers will be Linda McCartney, Realeat, Granose, Rice Dream and Daily Bread. Based in the USA and with a turnover of more than $1 billion, its recipe involves buying up small producers and outsourcing production.(12) Though its focus on certified organic products means it is probably a good thing, it lacks formal group-wide policies on environmental and social issues of a kind we would expect from a company of this size.
Kimberly-Clark Corp, maker of Huggies, is the other big player in the disposable nappies market. Compared to P&G, it is relatively small with only $19 billion of turnover, and a 19% market share. It has recently succumbed to a five year Greenpeace campaign to improve its timber sourcing (see above).
In the 1990s Boots was a pioneer in developing what were, at the time, quite sophisticated ideas of ethical sourcing. Since then it merged with Swiss-based Alliance Unichem which was in turn bought out by the giant US private equity company KKR. Boots has now left the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, unions, voluntary and organisations working to improve worker’s rights. Unregulated capitalism bringing benefits to all again I see!
Procter & Gamble Its Pampers nappies have UNICEF branding in exchange for a project which has delivered 31 million tetanus vaccines to protect ‘mothers and their newborns’ in the global South. It is hard to fault this project – though the ethical kudos which Pampers gains can’t help but distract critical attention from a product which externalises so many of its social and environmental costs.
1 Life Cycle Assessment of disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK - Environment Agency May 2005
2 An updated Life Cycle Assessment Study for Disposable and Reusable Nappies - Environment Agency October 2008
3 Mintel Report, Nappies and Baby Wipes. April 2008
5 Eco Baby A green Guide to Parenting Sally J Hall Green Books 2008
6 www.oxfordshire.gov.uk real nappies page viewed 25/1/10
7 www.goreal.org.uk/why/environment viewed 25/1/10
8 according to www.forbes.com Global 2000 by rank viewed 25/1/10
9 World Bank 2008 figures viewed 25/1/10
11 Wall Street journal. Jan 6th 2010
12 Hoovers Hain Celestial Company Profile Jan 25th 2010
13 www.grist.org Aug 5th 2009
14 email from Rick Froese, Mother-ease Inc, 14/1/10
15 www.merton.gov.uk Landfill site - what happens to your waste - viewed 1/2/10
16 WEN media statement 4/7/07
17 www.bbc.co.uk/bloom/actions/realnappies.shtml viewed 1/2/10
18 A 60o wash cycle uses 1Kwh, according to www.bbc.co.uk/bloom/actions/lowtempwashing.shtml viewed 1/2/10 A green energy supplier might charge 15p per Kwh. With 20 nappies in a wash, this would cost 0.75 pence per nappy.