Bags-for-life have become as much a part of our shopping armoury as our debit card. Reducing single use plastics in this area was a very small step towards a circular economy – a gesture, but we need to do more and go further. Nowhere is this more urgent than for single use plastic nappies, one of the biggest contributors to plastic pollution.
Why are single use nappies problematic?
In the UK, over three billion single use nappies are sent to landfill or incinerated annually. This burden on our waste system is amplified by misleading claims made by manufacturers that their products are ‘biodegradable’, ‘recyclable’, and ‘eco-friendly’. In reality nappies with these labels will only decompose in carefully controlled, industrial facilities. You really, really don’t want to put them on the compost heap.
Most nappies end up in landfill or incinerators, just like regular plastic waste.
In landfill, these nappies degrade without oxygen, releasing methane that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. They also break down into microplastics and toxic residues, exacerbating levels of terrestrial and marine plastic pollution. That process can take up to 300 years: in 12 generations’ time they’ll still be there. And the cost of disposal to local authorities is significant: the manufacturers profit from the sales and the rest of us pay.
Recycling nappies isn’t the answer
Our waste system is not equipped to recycle nappies either.
This is because single use nappies are extremely difficult to recycle, as they are made up of so many materials (including plastic outer layers, cellulose fibre, and water-absorbent polymer) that cannot be separated easily and contain human excrement after use. When nappies enter recycling waste streams, they end up contaminating other waste that could have otherwise been recycled.
Recycling is not the answer when it comes to tackling plastic waste. When it comes to the waste pyramid, we must never forget that ‘reduce’ is best, reuse is next, and recycling is a poor third.
Moving away from single use plastic
The real issue is the pressing need to reduce the unnecessary and excessive consumption of single use plastics. Let us not forget that the average plastic consumption of single use nappies per child is equivalent to throwing away 17 plastic bags daily, or over 6,000 per year.
On the other hand, reusable nappies generate 99 percent less waste per child than their single use counterparts, as well as using 98 percent fewer raw materials by weight. They are also easy to use, effective, and help both families and local authorities to save money in the long run.
We need to transition from our throwaway, buy-use-dispose economy to one that champions circular principles and practices. We need real behavioural change, embedded at a local level, and backed by national government policies that prioritise prevention and reuse.
For this to happen, we need to move away from single use plastic products like nappies – be they recycled, ‘biodegradable’, or otherwise – and do more to promote reusable alternatives. The more we dither about this, the more we delay our transition to the advanced circular economy that we need.
What the government could do
Luckily for the government, it can look to reusable nappy incentive schemes that are already in operation across the country as a way to support this transition. Many local authorities in England offer financial incentives, such as vouchers and discounts, or loan trial kits to families wanting to purchase or try reusable nappies. Such locally led efforts to address plastic waste will be essential to transitioning to a circular economy on a national scale.
The government can easily help people make a practical, cost-saving choice about the types of nappies they use for their babies by supporting the expansion of reusable nappy schemes to enable more families to have access to them, overcoming the barrier of the initial purchase cost, and looking towards laundering schemes, free to those who most need them, such as those without access to home washing machines.
And the average saving per baby – £11 a week over two and a half years – would see a significant boost to many families’ budgets.
The environment bill
This is a central element of my amendment to the environment bill, currently grinding its way through the House of Lords. It is evident that its origins three years ago mean it is in no way adequate for the climate emergency and nature crisis in which we find ourselves.
My amendment, which I’ll be looking – with improvements reflecting the debate we’ve just had at Committee Stage – to push for a vote on during the report stage, also aims to address the false environmental claims made by manufacturers of single use nappies by establishing standards by which a nappy can be marketed as ‘biodegradable’, ‘recyclable’, and similar terms. I am pleased that my amendment has received an overwhelming level of cross-party support, both inside and outside of Parliament.
The government cannot continue to ignore our calls for a paradigm shift, to stop choking the planet with plastic.
It must recognise that designing for biodegradability and recyclability obscures the real solution: to end our reliance on single use plastics and promote reusable alternatives as part of a truly circular economy. Nappies is a good place to start.