Our response to the Environment Agency’s Nappy Life Cycle Analysis

The EA's Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK (A very large 209-page pdf file.)

The general consensus is that this report, published 19 May 2005, has increased confusion over the whole nappy issue. The media headlines read “Washable nappies as bad for the environment as disposables”.

However behind these misleading soundbites the Environment Agency’s life cycle analysis made some very good points: if you boil-wash, tumble dry and then iron your cotton nappies then you are wasting fossil fuels. It’s just not necessary, A 60 degree wash is sufficient for your own baby’s nappies. Likewise, laundry services that travel miles and miles between customers use a high level of fossil fuels.

Our response to this is that we’d actually worked this out already and when we planned Nappy Ever After we took these things into consideration. Home-washing nappies can be environmentally friendly as the Women's Environmental Network point out in their response to the report. When we recommend nappies we suggest trying the flat type such as pre-fold because they air dry so quickly. We always tell people that boiling and using strong chemicals to sterilise is not necessary.

We use green freight for our laundry service. We have strictly limited the geographical area we cover so that we have high pick up rates. We mix the electric van with the bike so can minimise the amount of times we have to charge the battery.

We use a professional laundry that has been operating for generations and over the decades has developed economies in use of water, detergent and fossil fuels. The nappies have to be sterilised according to government regulation for soiled linen but the laundry uses the most efficient way to bring the water to temperature. The cotton nappy at the end of its life, at least 100 washes, is sold at £600 per tonne for recycling ie it has market value. LAs often have to pay to get green glass and plastics recycled.

Unfortunately the laundry is a long way away. We always wanted to have our nappies washed locally but this was not possible. The laundry’s vans do already travel in and out of London each day serving hotels. However, a local laundry will be better. We hope to work with our laundry to establish a laundry in central London which will create jobs for local people and reduce road miles.

We would urge you to look at the various responses to the EA Report from WRAP, Women's Environmental Network, Community Recycling Network and Sustainable Wales.

It is important to note that many of the organisations that were supposed to have been consulted in writing the report were unhappy with the methodology and have yet to see the data the report is based on.

It is also important to note that the parameters for the study when set did not take into consideration land use. Simply put, the reason why local authorities give incentives to parents to use washable nappies is because the UK is running out of landfill. If they don’t meet targets to reduce the refuse sent to landfill they will be fined per tonne. These fines, of perhaps £250 per tonne will be paid for by us, as borough residents.

The space taken up by landfill is an issue. We don’t know how long it takes for landfilled nappies to break down. Originally the disposal industry thought they were creating big compost heaps but this has turned out not to be the case. The mixture of materials do not break down easily but do emit methane, a gas 3 times worse that CO2 for global warming. No one knows how to classify disposable nappy waste because it’s part paper, part plastic and part human waste – particularly rich in methane. Some environmental groups have argued that so-called eco-friendly disposables are actually worse for the environment because their break-down releases more methane than nappies containing plastic absorbent crystals.

It is true that a process has been developed for recyling disposable nappies. So far there are plants in the Netherlands and Canada. An independent consultant talking at the Resource Recovery Forum conference on the EA's research, said his findings showed that recycling disposable nappies was actually worse than incineration in terms of energy use, (in the Netherlands incineration is used as an energy source). Recycling consumes a lot of water and the plastics and paper retrieved from the process had no or little value on the market as they had very restricted potential for remanufacturing.

There is also the whole issue of profit-making companies extending the time children spend in nappies, both days and nights. The EA Report suggested there was no difference but the cotton nappy industry has had a very important effect on educating parents about when children are best potty and night-trained. There was a time, not so many years ago when the disposables industry had persuaded everyone not to bother to think about potty training until a child was 3 and a half. Now, of course we have disposable pull-ups that do get wet – well that’s a success for real nappy campaigners.

We remain convinced that a reusable product used responsibly is going to be better than a single-use product. Where there is a reusable alternative people should be encouraged to choose it and that’s what we are doing. We also hate the smell of disposable nappies and the other businesses that these multi-nationals are involved in.

When the report came out, one customer emailed us: “there’s the same number of calories in a packet of salt & vinegar crisps as a handful of nuts and raisins, but there’s a world of difference between the two,” and I think that says it all.