Nappy valley

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
Photograph courtesy of the Real Nappies for London

The development of a new nappy recycling site in west London promises to reopen the long-standing ‘disposable versus reusable’ debate. Dad-of-two David Burrows reports

In 2005, Defra and the Environment Agency published an analysis comparing the environmental impacts of disposable nappies and reusable ones. “We were hoping it would clear the issue up,” says Hilary Vick, project manager at Real Nappies for London. Instead, it created a bit of a storm by concluding there was little or nothing to choose between them.

“Parents trying to do their bit for the planet by pinning their infants into reusable nappies might as well have been using disposables,” was The Guardian’s take, so you can imagine how it went down in the rest of the media. Even WRAP queried the findings. “There’s no doubt it confused people,” adds Vick, “but it also confused local authorities.”

Indeed, councils that had started promoting ‘real nappies’ through distribution networks and voucher schemes began to wash their hands of the idea. In 2008, updated figures were published: the global warming impact of reusable nappies can be considerably less than disposables, the new study concluded. There were a number of caveats, including how the nappies are washed and dried, and whether they’re used for second child, but with simple changes the footprint of reusables falls quickly below that of disposables (see box).

“At last,” said the Women’s Environmental Network at the time, “this report supports what [we have] been stating for decades – real nappies are best for the environment with 40% carbon savings to be made over disposables.”

Down the line

Six years on, are nappy networks the norm after the waste-aware public switched to reusables? Not quite. Many local authorities have tried to incentivise real nappy use, but in the absence of instant results some have quickly concluded that the majority want them. About 5% of parents have embraced reusables (disclaimer: my wife and I are among them). But behaviour change takes time and it can have a knock-on effect.

“It’s a good way of introducing the concept of reuse and encouraging positive behavioural change,” explains Devon County Council waste management officer Nicky Bowman, who leads the Devon Real Nappy Project. A recent study by Go Real found that 69.5% of parents surveyed were more aware of waste reduction issues after using real nappies.

Understanding of the immediate environmental and cost benefits to councils is also improving. A study published in February 2015 in the Journal of Solid Waste Technology and Management showed that from 2007 to 2012 the Real Nappies for London (RNfL) scheme prevented 6,962 tonnes of waste from ending up in landfill. The £647,466 savings on Landfill Tax dwarfed the £63,423 cost of the scheme, which involves giving residents vouchers to redeem against real nappy products. “[…] the RNfL scheme presents an effective waste minimisation tool for the reduction of [disposable nappies] to landfill at local authority and community level,” the authors noted. “However, if RNfL is to strengthen its position the scheme will need to incorporate control and monitoring in its design to increase the scope of recorded outcomes such as administration process, cost benefit analysis, resident behaviour and wider environmental benefits.”

Vick, who helped publish the paper together with the North London Waste Authority and experts at the University of Northampton’s School of Science and Technology, admits that there needs to be more research. But, “we don’t need further life cycle analyses,” she says. “What we need is research showing the pattern [of behaviour] across the UK. Councils don’t want to send plastic to landfill or incinerators but they don’t have the confidence in [public] behaviour change.”

That parents have free samples of disposables thrust into their hands almost before they’ve had the chance to cuddle their new arrival doesn’t help. Indeed, there are those who suspect the big manufacturers of disposables had more than their fair say in some of the life cycle analyses; Defra meanwhile was criticised for allowing the updated figures to slip under the media’s radar.

That isn’t to say nothing has been done to reduce the impact of disposables. Between 1987 and 2013, the average weight of single-use nappies has been reduced by almost 50% – from 65g to 33g, according to a life cycle analysis undertaken by EDANA, the international association for nonwovens.

The easy option?

As well as lightweight, they are also low cost and easy to use, which makes them the popular choice. Cost is a particular challenge, with an initial outlay for real nappies of up to £200 putting many off. Some councils have schemes to help residents out, and there’s plenty of evidence that the short-term pain has a long-term gain: Go Real estimates cost savings of between £150 and £1,000.

It does require effort. Real nappies have to be washed and dried (as efficiently as possible), and they can (from personal experience) be a bit fiddly to get used to. However, there are plenty of videos, chatrooms and social media groups available to help deal with the mess (of which there is much less given vastly improved designs).

Is the ‘yuck factor’ also a barrier? Dr Philip Powell at the University of Sheffield is an expert on the human response of ‘disgust’. He says that different people tend to be more or less prone to feeling the sense of disgust, but it’s possible to overcome these emotions.

“Often the disgust response provides us with accurate and useful, rapid information – for example, ‘I shouldn’t eat that mouldy sandwich’ – but sometimes it misfires and can lead us to reject something without reasoning why,” he explains. The solution, he suggests, is educating people to identify and reappraise their initial disgust reactions, so they know when they should be listening to that response and when it is misfiring. The real nappy industry and advocacy groups can also help, by marketing real nappies as less disgusting than they think.

It is a hard sell (not least against the marketing millions of the nappy manufacturers). Research by Mintel shows that people are concerned about the number of disposable nappies filling their bins, but rather than switch to reusables they want councils to do something about it: 41% of those with children aged up to two feel there should be more recycling options for nappies.

Such schemes have historically struggled. But those in the business of turning nappies into money are confident of turning the corner. Natural UK claims it has diverted over one million disposable nappies from landfill for Rhondda Cynon Taff authority in Wales.

Knowaste, which is building the UK’s largest absorbent hygiene product (AHP) recycling site in Hayes, west London, did have a plant up and running in West Bromwich, but that was closed after 20 months. Some suggested high operating costs and a lack of contracts for the end products did for the project, but business development director Paul Richardson says it was used to “modify the technology in readiness for the new plant” and couldn’t be expanded to full commercial capacity.

Recycling possibilities

Knowaste’s process can release the moisture from the waste products leaving “virtually everything else” to be recycled into a range of products that could include trays, bins, sleepers and tarmac alternatives. “The process has taken longer for us to refine than we thought,” he admits, but it was always a case of “when, not if” it would happen.

Feedstock shouldn’t be a problem, either. Hayes 180, as the £14m project has been dubbed, will take 40,000 tonnes of waste a year and is just one of seven the company is rolling out over the next five years. In the UK there are one million tonnes of AHP; around three quarters is from households, but Knowaste is going first for some of the 250,000 tonnes of “low-hanging fruit” that comes from hospitals, care homes and nurseries.

Several councils are putting together plans to collect from the doorstep too.

Richardson admits the energy and water demands are high, but a life cycle analysis carried out in West Bromwich showed that Knowaste’s recycling technology was “70% better” in terms of carbon than either landfill or incineration, and the process at Hayes is “far superior”. “We don’t argue one way of the other [when it comes to reusables versus disposables],” he adds, but “less than 5% of people choose to use reusable nappies, so we’re dealing with the other 95%”.

RNfL’s Vick, naturally, sees it differently. “We haven’t tried prevention yet,” she says, “and we haven’t invested in [real nappy infrastructure] because everyone got so confused by the government’s life cycle analysis.”

Fact file: Nappy (carbon) change

If disposable nappies are used over 2.5 years there is a global warming impact of 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents

If reusable nappies are used over 2.5 years there is a global warming impact of 570kg of carbon dioxide equivalents

BUT, the way in which the nappies are laundered and dried has a significant impact on that footprint, and can bring it well below disposables

For example ...

... use an energy efficient drier and washing machine and the impact drops by
9% (to 519kg)

... ensure loads are full and nappies are dried outside
and the impact drops by
16% (to 479kg)

... ensure full loads, dry
the nappies outside and use them for a second child
and the impact falls by
40% (to 342kg)

It can also work
the other way...

... tumble dry all nappies
and the impact shoots up
by 43% (to 815kg)

Source: Calculations based on the findings in Defra’s 2008 life cycle analysis of nappies

David Burrows is a freelance writer


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