The Environmental Impact of Nappies
The Environmental Impact of Nappies

The Environmental Impact of Nappies

The nappy may be one of the modern world’s greatest inventions but it has a massive environmental impact. It takes 500 years for some brands of nappy to break down, releasing methane in the process, and contributes to global warming.

The good news is that we are moving to a circular economy for nappies. This will include recycled plastics, as well as biodegradable and compostable alternatives. The World Economic Forum is supporting a number of start-ups that are developing this solution, through its Uplink initiative.

When it comes to nappy choice, the options can be overwhelming. Many new parents are now opting for natural disposables or re-usables (sometimes known as real nappies). These are more environmentally friendly than standard nappies, but they do require more washing and drying time, and can be quite pricey upfront.

You can also opt for bio-based or eco-friendly single-use options, which have a lower environmental profile but do contain some plastic elements, as the UN Environment Programme reports. Choosing a lighter product can help, as can washing in cold water and line drying, which reduces the environmental footprint further.

As with any nappy decision, you need to consider your baby’s personality and the way they behave at each stage of development. Some babies have sensitive skin, so you may find they are happier in a soft material. Others may be very wriggly, so you’ll need a nappy with stretchy leg cuffs and waist tapes to prevent them from bunching up and leaking.

Some nappy companies have tried to improve the environmental profile of their products by using more cellulose instead of plastic in the core, and by replacing some of the plastics used in the nappy’s outer layers. However, the UNEP report notes that this often has to be done at the expense of other important sustainability targets such as avoiding freshwater and marine pollution, and using agricultural land sparingly.

One of the biggest challenges is dealing with poo, especially at night. Babies are often less happy in a wet nappy than they would be if they were dry, and will scream or struggle to get it off (not what you want on your workwear!). A nappy that has been sitting up to its neck in poo will need to be emptied as soon as possible, so having a plan in place for changing at home and when out and about is crucial.

Some parents opt for a hybrid approach, with re-usables in the daytime and a normal disposable at night. This can be a cost effective option, and can also help to reduce the amount of nappy waste you send to landfill – especially if you buy second hand reusables from a nappy sale, which are often much cheaper than new ones. You will need a good supply of clean, washed nappies, and some thought into the right type of outer clothing to match – cute rabbit pants anyone? – as well as the right washing equipment, but over the long term this will be significantly cheaper than buying and heating loads of single-use nappies.