Is there any science on reusable nappies?

Oct 4, 2019 Reusable alternatives

Yes:

The Environment Agency (2008). An Updated lifecycle assessment for disposable and reusable nappies. EA, Defra and Wrap. Environment Agency. Accessed 29.08.19 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/an-updated-lifecycle-assessment-for-disposable-and-reusable-nappies

This is a comprehensive and robust study from Defra. The over-arching summary of this report is that reusable nappies need to be used for 2 children, washed no higher than 60C in full loads in energy efficient machines and line dried outside in order to be lower impact than disposable nappies.

However

The study only assesses reusable nappies that are 100% cotton. So if all of your nappies are made from bamboo, hemp and microfibre there is no evidence yet to suggest that these reusable nappies have such a high ecological impact in comparison to disposable nappies. New research is needed to draw these conclusions.

  • Furthermore it is relevant to acknowledge that the energy data in this report is 13 years old. The amount of renewable energy consumed in the UK has increased considerably over this time and coal has decreased. This will affect the energy load of both reusable and disposable nappies.
  • Washing machines included in the 2008 report were efficient to A+. Washing machines in 2019 are more efficient with many achieving A+++.
  • The report doesn’t address the environmental impact of washing cloth nappies in relation to micro plastics nor the environmental impact of microplastics from disposable nappies.
  • The report is limited to the brief of assessing nappies so the impact of using cloth wipes in comparison to disposable wipes is unknown. Recent documentaries such as ‘War on Plastic by Hugh and Anita’ does flag huge issues that we do have with disposable wipes in the UK.
  • Verdict – if you have been discouraged away from reusable nappies through the reading of this report don’t be. The research is largely relevant to energy profiles 13 years ago and it is irrelevant to any cloth nappies made from bamboo, hemp and microfibre. Popular UK cloth nappy brands such as Tots Bots only use bamboo and microfibre fabrics. But do be encouraged this report offers useful insight into the way in which reusable nappies can be used most sustainably.

Science Summary: An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies 2008

Science Summary SC010018/SS2

A new report published by Defra, the Environment Agency and WRAP looks at the effect of disposable and reusable nappies on global warming and other environmental impacts.

Using figures from 2006, report authors Environmental Resources Management Limited estimated the environmental impact of a child using disposable nappies or shaped cloth (reusable) nappies for the first two and half years of its life, after which time most children stop using nappies during the day.

The study updates information from a similar assessment, carried out in 2002/03.

The study considers all the environmental burdens associated with the manufacture, use and disposal of nappies in the UK in a variety of scenarios, for example, how reusable nappies are washed and dried, and whether they are reused on a second child.

Using information from manufacturers, the Market Transformation Programme and earlier studies, one of the key impacts the authors calculated was for ‘global warming impact’ for both disposable and reusable nappies.

The average 2006 disposable nappy results in a global warming impact of 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents if used over the two and half years a child typically wears nappies. This figure is 12 per cent less than 2002/03, as manufacturers have reduced the weight of disposable nappies by 13.5 per cent.

The authors highlighted that the manufacture of disposable nappies has a greater environmental impact in the UK than their waste management by landfill.

Reusable nappies were found to have a global warming impact of 570kg carbon dioxide equivalent over the two and a half period, based on average washer and drier use.

The impact of all children in the UK wearing nappies (estimated as 1.7 million children at any one time) equates to 0.4Mt carbon dioxide equivalents per year. The total greenhouse gas emissions of the UK is around 700Mt each year.

The environmental impact of reusable nappies varies greatly depending on how they are laundered.

For example, washing the nappies in fuller loads or line drying them outdoors all the time reduces the global warming impact by 16 per cent. If these nappies are also used on a second child, the original figure drops by 40 per cent, or some 200kg carbon dioxide equivalents over the two and a half years – an impact equal to driving about 1,000 km.

In contrast, if the nappies are always tumble-dried, the original 570kg figure increases by 43 per cent. If these nappies are also washed at 90°C instead of 60°C, the baseline figure rises by 75 per cent – up by 420kg carbon dioxide equivalent over two and half years.

It is consumers’ behaviour that dictates the environmental impact of reusable nappies.

The impact of reusable nappies on global warming can be reduced by:

• Line drying outside whenever possible.
• Tumble-drying as little as possible.
• Using energy efficient appliances whenever

possible (A+ rated machines are preferred). • Keeping washing temperatures below 60°C. • Washing fuller loads.
• Reusing nappies on other children.

This summary relates to information from Science Project SC010018, reported in detail in the following output(s):

Science Report: SC010018/SR2
Title: An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies

ISBN: 978-1-84432-927-4 October 2008 Product code: SCHO0808BOIR-E-P

Internal Status: Released to all regions External Status: Publicly available

Project manager: Terry Coleman, Science Department

Research Contractor:

Environmental Resources Management Eaton House, Wallbrook Court
North Hinksey Lane
Oxford

OX2 0QS

This project was delivered by the Environment Agency’s Science Department, which provides scientific knowledge, tools and techniques to enable us to protect and manage the environment as effectively as possible. The work was jointly funded by Defra, WRAP and the Environment Agency.

Further copies of this summary and related report(s) are available from our publications catalogue on or our National Customer Contact Centre T: 08708 506506 or E: enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk.

© Environment Agency.

By Hannah