At RNfL we are asked this question all the time, "Isn't washing nappies, what with all the laundry powder, carbon and water used, just as bad for the environment as single-use nappies?" No, we say. Depending on how you wash and dry them they can have up to 40% lower carbon impacts plus they are virtually zero waste. (See link to report 'Using Science to Create a Better Place' below.) The impacts can be even lower if your child is out of nappies before s/he is two and a half years old. Impacts are also smaller if some or all of your nappy stash is pre-loved!
So where did this myth come from? When single-use nappies first came to the market they were largely paper pulp and so mostly bio-degradable. They were also very expensive and not very absorbent so most UK parents didn't use them. They preferred terry nappies and laundry services. It was only in the the 1980s when manufacturers started using Superabsorbent polymers (SAPS) in nappies that sales really took off. By the mid '90s the disposable nappy had about 90% of the UK nappy market - probably more in London.
It was the Women's Environmental Network (WEN) and Best Foot Forward (link to WEN briefing below) that drew attention to the problem of landfilling 4-6,000 single-use nappies stuffed with SAPS per baby. The consensus was reached that washable nappies were more environmentally
friendly than single-use nappies. By then very few parents in the UK knew about modern washable nappies (they thought the choice was between terries, Pampers and Huggies) so WEN initiated Real Nappy Week (1998) and later the Real Nappies for London voucher scheme to help London boroughs inform parents about the latest alternatives to 'disposable' nappies.
Then in May 2005 the Environment Agency published a very long, detailed and expensive nappy life cycle analysis (link to large pdf file) that said
washing nappies was just as bad for the environment as 'disposables'. Environmentalists were astonished and disappointed. The report
omitted the impacts of landfill. It also assumed the reusable nappies (terries) were boiled, tumble-dried and ironed.
Clearly the researchers were very out of touch with the modern reusable nappy market. It was later also revealed that the data on disposable nappy waste was
underestimated. In short it was biased, as are most life cycles because of intense lobbying pressure from industry.
However the myth had been born. This
life-cycle analysis had huge media coverage with most media claiming
that reusable nappies were just as bad for the environment as
disposables, neither could claim environmental superiority. "Parents
don't need to feel guilty" crowed the press release put out by AHPMA the
(Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association.) "Parents should just
choose the nappy that best suits their lifestyle" it said.
October 2008 the Environment Agency published an updated report (see link below)
reassessing the impacts of washing nappies and some of the data. The
conclusion was that washing nappies could have up to 40% lower carbon
impacts than single-use nappies if they were line-dried and washed at low-temperatures. There
was virtually no coverage of the report in the media.
Please help expose the myth - washing nappies is much better for the environment if you wash nappies at 60 degrees or below and don't tumble-dry and iron them!
Link to Using Science to Create a Better Place: An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies
Link to WEN Briefing: Nappies and the Environment