Now it’s about the end of the nappy life cycle, and this is the part I always imagined when I thought of disposable nappies. All I could ever imagine was a giant pile of dirty nappies in a landfill somewhere. I didn’t even think that they would also be outside my back door till rubbish collection day… ugh!
So, let's now look at how disposing of nappies impacts on the environment.
In line with previous blogs I’ll start with cloth, because cloth nappies too have an end to their life as a nappy. Fortunately, cotton is completely biodegradable, in fact it can even be added to the compost bin, but one of the things I love about Real Nappies Prefolds is that once they have finished their life as a nappy, they can actually still be used for other things - such as cleaning the fog off your car window in the mornings, wiping up messes from the floor, sitting under the potty (just in case), wrapping up a heat pack, dust cloths and more… Also, cloth nappies can be used on additional children until they are literally falling apart. With that in mind a cotton nappy may never end up in landfill. My mother still has one of my old nappies from over 30 years ago! It's used as a cleaning cloth now, though still in pretty good condition.
Disposable nappies, on the other hand, are the third largest source of waste in landfills (newspapers and food/beverage containers being higher). One baby in disposables produces one ton of trash over one year. Wow!
Added to this problem the time it takes for a disposable nappy to decompose. Although the paper in them can decompose quickly, it is the plastics and super-absorbance gels that take hundreds of years (estimated 500+) to decompose assuming they are in the right conditions - exposed to sunlight and air. Unfortunately, most landfills are covered and don't allow the nappies the air and light they need to decompose, so nobody knows how long they may really take, could be thousands of years.
During decomposition, a disposable nappy releases methane into the air, contributing to global warming, or if they are burnt, they release toxic gases into the atmosphere.
The effects on the environment are just one part of the problem. What about the human waste they contain? Human waste is considered biowaste, because it can carry both viral and bacterial disease, and can be a serious health hazard if it gets into our water systems.
Did you know that you are actually supposed to clean the poo out of the disposable before you get rid of it! Most packs carry instructions telling you to flush solid waste before you throw away the nappy.
This is for very good reason and in most industrialised countries, it is illegal to dispose of human waste in landfill. However, very few people who use disposable nappies are aware of these instructions, let alone follow them, potentially causing major health issues and spread of disease in our communities. With cloth nappies the human biowaste is sent down the right pipes and this is never an issue, as it goes into our waste water systems and is dealt with appropriately.
Now we have reached the end of the life cycle of a nappy, we can see that both cloth and disposable nappies impact the environment, although the damage from cloth nappies is smaller than that of disposables. When it comes to disposal of the nappies, the disposable variety cause a lot of environmental issues and are constantly adding to landfill in large amounts.
We are parents too, and we get busy and stressed and worried and I know that it is hard to always do the right thing. But it is important we take responsibility for our environment, the world we are leaving to our children, and are aware that our choices can make an impact, no matter how large or small. If we can't avoid making an environmental impact, we need to ensure we take all steps to lessen it.
Currently, 95% of Australian babies are wearing disposables. In New Zealand, around 600 million disposable nappies are used every year. So, the first thing you can do is switch to cloth, even if you can only manage to do one cloth nappy a day, that is still one less disposable. Equally as important is to try and ensure you have a good enviro-healthy wash routine.
Personally, we chose to use cloth because it is a better option and certainly one where we can control the environmental impact. We also use reusable wipes, and have a little nature baby who loves to get outside and get dirty (which we encourage), so our washing machine was going to be running whether we used cloth or disposables. We find other ways to save water, such as quicker showers and we pre-rinse the night nappies in the morning shower, we air dry the nappies as much as possible, we try to fill up the washing machine as much as possible to save power and we use eco-detergents. Although, to be frank, the idea that there could be a pile of dirty nappies at my back door waiting till rubbish day is pretty gross and smelly.
But we're not perfect and we don’t expect anyone else to be either – it’s the little changes we can make that can make all the difference.
Changes you can make
Use cloth nappies as much as possible
You don’t need to go full time immediately, you can go part time or even just one per day. Every time you do use a cloth nappy, it is one less disposable, which means less air pollution, less toxic waste, less plastic, less landfill, less resources used.
Have a good wash routine – larger loads, energy friendly machine
Have good energy rated appliances, think about washing temperature, number of nappies laundered at a time, how you dry them, what detergent you use – doing this could reduce your environmental impact by up to 38%. Check out Part Two for recommendations.
Reuse cloth nappies
Use them with subsequent children, pass them on to others to use, give them away when you’re done or on sell them. Or use them around the house as rags etc.
Buy eco-friendly disposables (if you use them).
Make sure you buy from a company that has sustainable practices in place. There are lots of eco-disposables out there now - find companies that use unbleached wood pump from sustainably managed forests. If you don't know from the packaging - ask!
Buy eco-friendly cloth nappies – go organic
For cloth - buy organic cotton, or be aware of the process needed for the material in your nappies.
Buy sustainably made products
Not just your nappies, but make sure your detergents are biodegradable and buy from companies that are eco-friendly and promote sustainability.
Lower your water use within the home
Recycling water, e.g. soaking the nappies in water collected from the shower/bath (I do this with my night nappies in particular). Flush the toilet less, fix your dripping taps etc.
- Life Cycle Assessment: Reusable and Disposable Nappies in Australia – K. O’Brien, R. Olive, Y-C Hsu, L. Morris, R. Bell & N. Kendall. Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering, The University of Queensland, Brisbane
- Assessment of the differing environmental impacts between reusable and disposable diapers - J. Meseldzija, D. Poznanovic & R. Frank. Dufferin Research (Nov 2013).
- The Joy of Cloth Diapers - J. McConnell. Mothering Issue 88, May/June 1998 - LINK
- Why You Should Consider Using Cloth Diapers Instead Of Disposables.
- DOC (https://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/know-before-you-go/care-codes/activity-minimal-impact-codes/disposing-of-human-waste/)