Disposable nappies may seem highly convenient when babies are abound, but there is an uglier side to keeping our bubs clean: disposable nappies pose serious issues for the natural environment that will last well into the future.
Disposable Nappies: A Brief Background
The idea of the disposable nappy first came to light in the early 20th Century. Its technology and ‘absorbent’ methods saw much development in the 1930s-1950s and many began to turn to the disposable in response to problems associated with reusable nappies (such as poor hygiene and skin rashes).
The first “official” disposable nappy was created and patented in 1948 and today, disposables have become an easy solution for parents and a major product for various manufacturing companies.
Disposable Nappy Use in Australia
(1) According to figures released in 2009 by IbisWorld, Australians use around 5.6 million nappies per day
(2) This means that over 2 billion used nappies go into landfill sites in Australia each year
(3) Over 95% of Aussie parents still use disposable nappies today, either all of the time or in conjunction with reusable nappies
(4) The nappy problem isn’t just confined to Australia; for instance, Americans use 27.4 billion disposable nappies each year, which is enough waste to stretch to the moon and back 9 times
Key Environmental Issues
Despite their modern popularity, the ease of disposable nappies and the sheer volume that we use each year poses significant environmental problems.
Manufacturing Impact: Disposable nappies require large volumes of pulp, paper, plastic and other raw materials in the manufacturing process and hence, significant amounts of water and energy are used. This contributes to energy waste and pollution on a large scale and also links to other problems associated with deforestation and non-sustainable sourcing.
Nappy Fact: According to The Good Human, disposable nappies use 3 times more energy, 20 times more raw materials and 2 times more water than reusables during the manufacturing process.
Landfill Problems: Disposable nappies also place a huge strain on landfill sites in Australia. When combined with other absorbent hygiene materials (such as sanitary pads and incontinence pads), this results in around 450,000 tonnes of landfill waste every year and also contributes to notable amounts of carbon emissions.
Decomposition Problems: Many disposable nappies are also not as biodegradable as we assume. Scientists estimate that once nappies end up in a landfill, they can take around 500 years to decompose.
Contamination Issues: When we defecate, our waste goes into the toilet for good reason: It is treated and sanitised before being recycled or put back into our environment. The waste in disposable nappies, on the other hand, goes straight into the bin. As a result, when the nappies are placed into landfill, certain bacteria and viruses are at risk of soaking in to our groundwater and causing subsequent contamination problems.
Nappy Fact: If you threw out a disposable nappy anytime this year, it wouldn’t fully decompose until the year 2514
Environmentally Friendly Nappy Solutions
Luckily, there are several environmentally friendly solutions available to Australian consumers that can decrease the impact nappies have on our environment.
1. Reusable Cloth Nappies
According to a study conducted by the University of Queensland, “reusable nappies have the potential for the least environmental impact” (assuming they are washed in a water efficient washing machine using cold water and then line dried).
Reusable nappies can be made from a variety of materials, including organic cotton, bamboo, wool and hemp. Some manufacturers argue that making nappies from these materials is much more beneficial for the environment, since these plants don’t require harsh chemicals and pesticides to grow.
Other benefits of cloth nappies include:
(1) Free of toxins and chemicals (like dioxin), meaning they can be much easier both on the baby and the environment
(2) Opportunity for waste to go into the sewer system, rather than into the garbage
(3) Ability to provide better absorption and a higher level of comfort for children
(4) Less expensive than disposables in the long term and therefore more cost-effective
2. Eco-Friendly or Biodegradable Disposable Nappies
Biodegradable or eco-friendly disposable nappies are also another alternative that can be better for the environment.
According to the Raising Children Network of Australia, these nappies are made predominantly from materials like bamboo and paper pulp. This means that the majority of the nappy will be compostable and will biodegrade in a landfill over time.
In addition to being disposable, some eco-friendly nappies can also be flushed down the toilet or even buried in the garden for fertilisation.
Many manufacturers of biodegradable and eco-friendly nappies are also committed to lessening our environmental impact on a whole, meaning they will often source their materials from sustainable suppliers and produce their nappies using environmentally conscious methods.
3. Hybrid Nappy Alternatives
Of course, nappies can also come in a hybrid form, combining a reusable and washable outer layer (or nappy cover) with a disposable nappy ‘insert’ that absorbs the waste. The insert can then be thrown away, while the rest of the nappy can be reused.
Nappy Fact: Research conducted by the UK Environment Agency and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2007 claimed that reusable nappies, if washed/dried efficiently, can reduce environmental impact up to 40%
What Next for Nappy Waste?
Of course, if we are to significantly reduce the effect of nappies on our environment and our planet, it is not only nappy consumers who must change, but the manufacturers and suppliers who make them, as well as the waste management companies and procedures that govern how disposable nappies are dealt with once they’ve been used.
Recently, an Australian-first recycling scheme is set to take place in association with hygiene recycling company, Relivit. Relivit will open a new plant in Nowra, NSW, which will process 30,000 tonnes of absorbent hygiene waste each year and extract materials for recycling, thereby reducing our “nappy” impact and lessening the need for disposable nappies to end up in landfill sites.