What's in your nappy?
Rob Harrison, with help from our first ever online research forum, unpicks the stories behind the leading brands of disposables and reusables.
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) (Go to our Disposable Nappies buyers' guide.)
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.
But where to dry them?
Our online Nappies Research Forum asked for people to share their experiences of trying out reusables. sholferjem3 bonham joined in:
“I am at a crossroads with cloth nappies. I used only cloth with my now 5 year old. He had a variety of brands including organic, bamboo etc, however I have been using Moltex on my 12 month old daughter for a couple of months now although the last pack is almost finished and I have been using the cloth for daytime again. There are four reasons:
1 TIME: my son is still not dry at night and the laundry combined with nappies was resulting in about 3 or 4 loads of washing on a bad day.
2 DRYING: nowhere to dry all this laundry when it is raining non stop. Except of course the radiators which causes condensation, the airing cupboard which is too small, and of course the tumble dryer.
3 MONEY: having the heating on or using the tumbler is expensive and as a single mother I just can’t afford it.
4 ENVIRONMENT: my aim in using cloth nappies is doing my bit, but using a tumble dryer and having the heating on to dry the things is not environmentally friendly.
In summary, it is my opinion that drying is the main issue. Most homes do not have alternatives to the garden washing line when it rains. I had thought I could use the greenhouse the other day, but there is no one to hold the baby while I trek out across the lawn with a basket of wet nappies. All my friends are cloth nappy users and ALL of them admit to having to use huge amounts of energy to get them dry.”
Choosing reusable nappies
The table below shows nineteen of the best known reusable brands ranked by ethiscore. Before we look in more detail at some of the very complex options now available, there are three key points to make.
1 Check for local authority schemes
With one baby capable of filling 160 black bin bags with disposable nappies, it is local authorities which have had to bear most of the real costs of the growth of disposable nappy use.(3) Some have made the calculation that it is cheaper to help new parents with the high initial cost of reusables than pay for a lifetime of nappy disposal for that child. The Go Real website at www.goreal.org.uk allows you to type in a postcode to check for local schemes.
2 Try before you buy
With the initial cost of a practical set of reusables commonly more than £100, it is important to make sure the product is right for the very particular size and shape of your baby. A ‘Nappy Advisor’ or specialist retailer in your area will almost always be the best bet. The www.goreal.org.uk website can help with this too.
3 Don’t forget about drying
Not using too much energy in washing and drying is crucial if you want to make an environmental difference. Responses from our own Research Forum (and in others) have suggested that:
• microfibre nappies tend to dry the quickest,
• nappies which can be opened out flat (terrys, prefolds and some pockets) also dry well,
• all-in-ones tend to dry less well.
It may be that an ideal nappy set contains a number of different nappies of each type for each of the different challenges that arise.
Almost all reusable nappying these days starts with a washable or disposable ‘liner’ – often just a sheet of tissue from a roll of strengthened paper (which have not been covered in this report). Next is an absorbent layer (possibly with booster insert) and finally a waterproof outer layer.
The reusable nappy table below breaks down the different approaches to this basic pattern into four types:
Terry square – The traditional flat square of cloth you need to fold and pin/clip into place.
All-in-one – An absorbent inner fixed to a waterproof outer. The whole thing goes in the washing machine.
Two part – You buy a pair of waterproof pants, and then a few absorbent inners. Most are ‘shaped’ but some are ‘prefolds’ - little different from flat nappies. Some may be ‘pocket nappies’ which you can fix together beforehand to become a kind of all in one.
Birth to potty – For most of the other types of nappy you tend to have to buy them in different sizes as the baby grows. These relative newcomers tend to be a subset of two part nappies.
For more information about the different types of reusable nappy see Links.
Which type of fabric?
Cotton – The problems of child labour in cotton supply chains has been covered extensively in earlier Ethical Consumer buyers' guides (EC117 Clothes Shops, EC108 School Uniforms). Because of this, and also to address the high use of pesticides, we continue to recommend only organic or Fairtrade certified cotton products. Fortunately there are many organic cotton products available in the reusable nappy sector.
Bamboo – ‘Bamboo’ textiles have a higher absorbency than cotton and have therefore become popular in nappies – particularly for night time use. The growing of bamboo requires no pesticides or fertilisers and is therefore relatively environmentally benign. However its processing into rayon fibres requires strong chemical solvents which have serious environmental and health concerns.(9) Although newer processing methods may change this in the future, until such time as independent certification of bamboo cloth is available, claims that bamboo is an environmentally benign or preferable fibre are unlikely to be true. It should however be noted, in context, that most other fibres are not without their own, if different, negative impacts.
Microfibre – Microfibres refer to the thickness of a fibre and can be made of acrylic, nylon, polyester or rayon.(10) Polyester and nylon microfibres are likely to be those used in nappies because of their high absorbency. They are non-biodegradable and will be made from petroleum – a non-renewable resource. However their excellent drying performance means that, for long-life products such as these, they may still be a worthwhile option.
*Prices were taken for the cheapest all-in-one where available - not including special offers. Where an all in one was not available, the price was calculated for one nappy and one waterproof outer wrap. In practice, a two part systems will be cheaper than displayed here as one wrap for every four or five nappies would be a more usual set.
Bummis Inc is a Canadian reusable nappy specialist. “We have a lovely factory with lots of plants and natural light, and our offices are situated there as well. We produce everything we can in our factory in Montreal... For the products and components unavailable to us here in North America, we work with our long-time, reputable partners in the UK and Pakistan.”
Diddy Diapers, based in Loughborough, Leicestershire, makes its nappies in the UK so that it can: “provide part time employment for six employees, maintain high standards of quality... and can guarantee that all staff have safe working conditions, good rates of pay and are all over school age(!)”
Pop-in nappies are made by Close Parent Ltd – a company which also makes organic cotton carriers/slings. “Our factory in China has... a new building... with room to house the factory manager’s parents as they were being evicted from their premises as the authorities wanted their land. The workers get more holidays than most employees in China. We have visited the factory and spent a good amount of time there, so we know, hand on heart, that it’s good. That’s not to say that everything with them is plain sailing, it’s been a culture shock for Claire and I working with a Chinese factory. Everything is done so differently... but we’re getting used to each other now and starting to understand how each other work. We’ll get there!”
Swaddlebees products are apparently “manufactured in a professionally-run equal-opportunity facility in the US where seamstresses and workers are paid well, treated with respect, allowed sufficient time off to enjoy life and be with their families.”
Totsbots has the best formal policies on workers’ rights amongst the smaller reusable manufacturers. It manufactures in Glasgow and also tells us: “In our current economic climate we feel it is important to employ and train people in need of work. A couple of factories have recently closed in Glasgow and we are delighted to have been able to add some highly qualified machinists to our team.”
The excellently-named bumGenius manufactures in Colorado in the USA and also in Alexandria, Egypt. The company says: “Because the Egyptian factory is exclusively dedicated to the production of bumGenius products, we are able to set the factory culture through team-building activities, on the job training, and...wages and benefits designed to take the employees to the next level in life. ...The factory is beautiful and clean and is staffed with a very eager group of people... The whole team there has a great respect for us, our values, our products...”
Links and resources
Choosing reusable nappies
Buying reusable nappies second hand
Eco Baby, Sally J Hall - Green Books 2008
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 9 http://organicclothing.blogs.com/my_weblog/2007/09/bamboo-facts-be.html 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.