Today (Wednesday), the House of Lords will be discussing the official evidence – finally delivered – confirming the obvious common sense that reusable nappies are clearly much better for the environment than single-use.
This comes over a decade and a half after its predecessor, published in 2008. In that time, the total amount of scientific knowledge has fully doubled, according to some estimates; this re-analysis is therefore long overdue.
What does the new evidence reveal?
What do we learn from the newly crunched numbers? First, unlike the highly questionable claims made in the old document, we finally have an admission from government that reusable nappies produce 25% less CO2 than their single-use counterparts. This result is in agreement with the 2021 United Nations Environment Programme report.
And that’s based on the 2020 electricity grid. By 2035 with a fully decarbonised grid (or today if parents use a green energy supplier), the carbon footprint reduction is 93 per cent.
As the updated LCA points out, there were no products on the market in 2008 that are comparable to those available now; the technology has improved drastically, making reusable nappies much more viable for more people.
Second, we learn that the environmental impact of nappy production (highlighted as a major source of emissions) is 90% lower for reusables than single-use nappies. Numbers are similar when considering the other environmentally damaging stage of a nappy’s life: disposal. Reusable nappies have an environmental impact nine times lower than single-use nappies.
Third, even when washing and drying is taken into consideration, reusable nappies remain the more ‘environmentally friendly’ product. Were there a shift in consumer use, the environmental impact of nappies as a whole would be greatly reduced.
A sustainable and cost-effective solution
So where do we go from here now that we have a solid up-to-date analysis of the status quo? As the environmental campaign group Nappy Alliance points out, the next step is simple: pressure the government to introduce policies that will help parents and caregivers switch to reusable options.
From my perspective, this is a classic ‘two birds, one stone’ situation: as I have said before, making it easy to move to reusable nappies will not only improve environmental outcomes, but have significant cost savings for parents. On average, for a single baby, the total saving is £700. With a second child reusing the nappies, that adds £940. With the cost-of-living crisis affecting so many, that’s a saving that can make a real difference to budgets.
On learning that 10 million single-use nappies are sent to landfill, or incinerated, each day in the UK, 86% of parents surveyed said the government needs to be doing more to tackle nappy waste. What’s more, 87% said they would have chosen reusable nappies for their baby if they’d been midwife or hospital-recommended.
What could supportive government measures look like? It could also make use of its financial policy levers by subsidising reusable nappies, as has been suggested in the past by the Nappy Alliance and implemented by Camden council (among others).
At a national level, it would be logical to suggest that funds for this could be raised from a levy on disposable nappies, in a ‘carrot and stick’ manoeuvre. The government says it believes in the ‘polluter pays’ policy, there is an obvious case for it here.
Sign the petition
And as I have previously highlighted, local authorities have seen success with ‘nappy libraries’, which enable parents to trial different reusable products prior to the initial capital outlay to purchase these. Implementing these libraries more widely, perhaps coupled with interest-free loans to purchase the nappies such that the initial cost differential compared to single-use products is not so great, could help families make the switch.
Regardless of how the government chooses to act, it should do so quickly and intelligently. Tackling this issue will require joined-up thinking across government: the design and implementation of a ‘National Nappy Waste Strategy’ will need to be coupled with appropriate incentives to drive adoption of reusable nappies, especially in lower socio-economic brackets.
To give the government a push, a petition has just been launched by reusable manufacturer Bambinomio calling for a national nappy strategy. I’ve signed.
This article was prepared with the assistance of Paul-Enguerrand Fady