Is it greener to use washable or disposable nappies? (tell the Guardian)

The Guardian are using the ‘Ask Leo and Lucy‘ column as an  experiment in crowd-sourcing a reader’s question, so please let them know your views and experiences on this link and they will join in with some of their own thoughts and reactions as the debate progresses.

“I’m not sure what to do with regards to nappies and our first child is expected soon! I’d always thought that I’d plump for reusable nappies, however, we have recently moved to Kuwait with my husband’s work and he says that due to the way that water is desalinated here, and consumes so much water, it would be more environmentally friendly to use disposables. The eco-friendly disposables on the market are not sold here and even if I stocked up I would largely be reliant on the less ethical brands. I really am in a quandary, please help!”

Claire Shepherd, by email

It seems to have been a while now since I last heard anyone raising this age-old debate. Six years ago, it was all the rage, most likely because the Environment Agency published its controversial report which calculated and compared the environmental footprint of both washable and disposable nappies.

Not all Nappies are Rubbish at the Natural NurseryMy reaction to the report can be seen here in an article I wrote for this paper’s G2 features section. Why, I asked, had the report not examined the amount of waste sent to landfill that disposable nappies generate? And why, when trying to calculate the embodied energy of washable nappies, did it assume people ironed them?!

In 2008, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published an updated report (pdf) which drew much more nuanced conclusions. It concluded: “The environmental impacts of using shaped reusable nappies can be higher or lower than using disposables, depending on how they are laundered. The report shows that, in contrast to the use of disposable nappies, it is consumers’ behaviour after purchase that determines most of the impacts from reusable nappies.”

It then listed six ways for users of washable nappies to “reduce their environmental impacts”: line drying outside whenever possible; tumble drying as little as possible; when replacing appliances, choosing more energy efficient appliances (A+ rated machines); not washing above 60°C; washing fuller loads; and reusing nappies on other children.

There was a time when the (previous) government was actively promoting the use of washable nappies with subsidised schemes such as WRAP’s Real Nappy Campaign. In 2007, the then environment minister said this “three-year campaign had succeeded in diverting approximately 23,000 tonnes of biodegradable nappy waste from landfill in England”.

But, beyond answering the opening query about the comparative environmental merits of washable and disposable nappies, I would also be interested to hear if any local schemes are still up and running promoting the use of washable, or laundry-serviced nappies.”

Please join in the debate on the Guardian site here – or let us know what you think by commenting below.

The Natural Nursery has been compiling a list of Real Nappy Incentive Schemes, there are more to add so please let us know if there are any we have missed.

UK parents throw away around 3 billion disposable nappies every year – that is a lot of landfill!

Each one of these nappies will require around one cup of crude oil to make the plastic in the waterproof wrap – all to be thrown away, a massive waste of our natural resources.

A Women’s Environmental Network commissioned study shows that disposable nappies use:

  • 3.5 times as much energy
  • 8 times as much non-renewable raw materials
  • 90 times as much renewable raw materials
  • 2.3 times as much waste water
  • 60 times as much solid waste
  • up to 30 times as much land

as reusable nappies.

It is believed that it will take up to 500 years for these nappies to decompose (all the while producing dangerous methane gas), which could be a big headache for our grandchildren.

So all in all, washable nappies are the best.