Long have we known the detrimental impact disposable nappies and wipes have had on our environment. Roughly 800 million nappies end up in Australian landfills each year. This number includes biodegradable and so called greener brands because there are no commercial facilities dedicated to collecting and composting them properly.
When deciding to start a family, it's inevitable for parents to contemplate the long term environmental impact of diapering their children. One baby could use 4,000 to 6,000 disposable nappies during their infant years.
Photo by Kseniya Safronova on Unsplash @safronovakseni
The majority of time poor parents reluctantly choose the connivence of single use plastic nappies as the best solution for their lifestyle and budget. Plastic nappies use numerous non-renewable resources, for example it can take over 1,500 litres of crude oil to make enough nappies to diaper a child until 2.5 years. They're not recyclable or compostable and are thrown away with household waste, ending up in landfill and can take at least 150 years to break down completely.
The impacts for reusable nappies are highly dependent on the consumers behaviour after purchase.
The cloth nappy dilemma
Cloth nappies are also not without their problems due to manufacturing and laundering techniques. A study has shown for reusable nappies, based on the average washer and dryer use: laundering reusable nappies produced a global warming impact of approximately 570kg of carbon dioxide equivalents. However, the study showed that the impacts for reusable nappies are highly dependent on the consumers behaviour after purchase.
If reusable nappies are tumble-dried and washed at 90°C, these two energy intensive scenarios increase the global warming impact by 75 per cent over the average baseline washer & dryer used. Or an additional 420kg of carbon dioxide equivalent over two and a half years. The environmental impacts of using reusable nappies can be higher or lower than using disposables, depending on how they're laundered.
How to reduce the impact of single use nappies
The impact of plastic disposable nappies can be reduced by changing the way they're manufactured and the materials selected to design them. Plus, the disposing of single use nappies also needs to be have a thoughtfully designed system. These changes are currently in the hands of the manufacturers and the waste disposal system of each Australian LGA rather than the families. It's a complex problem and one that needs to be tackled with innovation and well designed circular systems.
Recently there has been a few exciting developments around the world with polymer technology
and sensor technology. The big questions for these new technologies are: where is the material sourced from? Where does it end up? How do they fit into existing waste systems?
Material innovation is one part of the nappy waste problem, dealing with nappy waste requires a hierarchy of action: eliminate as much plastic as possible; use sustainable materials and manufacturing techniques; design collection processing and composting systems.
Where are we at now with this global problem?
Right now globally we’re starting to see the emergence of innovative ideas, systems, products and pilot programs that could help our goal to a circular nappy system. The Australian company gDiapers has created a plastic-free compostable nappy and running a trial dropping off and collecting compostable nappies in West Papua, Indonesia, where nappies make up about 20% of the ocean waste – the resulting compost is used on the land. It is also working to launch its first UK trial in London.
But for now the average Australian parent will need to google and research their own nappy solutions if they do not want to leave thousands of nappies in landfill for 15o years. This is not an easy task, with time poor and tired parents left confused at the dizzying array of green washed products at the supermarket that claim to be better to the environment.
How leading consumer brands can make the biggest impact
The only hope for mass change in this space is for leading consumer brands to start taking a product stewardship approach. This is an environmental management strategy that would mean brands would take full responsibility of the products environmental impact, through the complete product life cycle. From design, manufacturing, product sale and most importantly end of product life management. Plus, applying the principles of the circular economy to find solutions to nappy waste
We've seen recently with the onset of the pandemic that when money is thrown at a big problem, innovative solutions can be found quickly. Let's hope brands start taking responsibility for making single use nappies and wipes. By putting profits back into research and development and designing products that give parents peace of mind. This is now the time for leading brands to rethink the way this space operates and be the leaders in preventing further environmental damage. We don't have time on our side, we need to solve this problem now.