#ReusableNappyWeek is an annual week of action from the 19th-25th of April to put the spotlight on reusable nappies.
Single-use baby nappies are a significant source of waste in Europe – generating around 6,731,000 tonnes of waste annually. The varied composition of these products, together with the presence of organic matter/excreta after use, makes their recycling technically and economically complex and expensive. Therefore, in Europe these products typically end up in landfills (87%) or are incinerated (13%), wasting resources and resulting in negative environmental impacts.
There is work to be done to make eco-friendly, non-toxic and plastic-free nappies readily available for all babies.
Reusable nappies have proven to be environmentally-friendly (saving resources and generating 99% less waste than their single-use counterpart), as well as more cost-efficient for both families and public authorities (when it comes to the management of this waste stream). There is also emerging evidence that they could be safer for babies.
This week, we want to showcase the great work and initiatives happening all across Europe and beyond on reusable nappies. Whether it’s raising awareness, demanding action from producers and suppliers, or asking for policy change at the national and European level… we need to start talking about reusable nappies, and start taking action to make them mainstream!
SHARE the cloth love: Use our toolkit to amplify key messages and be part of the conversation for change, using the hashtag #ReusableNappyWeek.
SUPPORT our ask: Read our policy briefing!
JOIN an event: See the full activities calendar and sign up for events in your language.
TAKE PART in the #PassTheNappy challenge – Pass on a reusable nappy and link our global community together in support of #ReusableNappyWeek. Discover more.
SWITCH: If you can, start using reusable nappies for your own children and share your story with the hashtags #ReusableNappyWeek and #ChangeStartsHere. Support and advice can be found via the Nappy Alliance website.
What is a single-use nappy made from:
Single-use baby nappies typically consist of a plastic outer layer with integral fastenings and a core of absorbent materials with a protective top layer. These items contain up to 61% plastic (super absorbent polymer, polypropylene, polyester, polyethylene, elastic and adhesives).
The impacts generated during the production of baby nappies result mainly from the use of large volumes of wood pulp, cotton, viscose rayon, the production of super absorbent polymer (SAP), and other components such as polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene, adhesives, and dyes. It takes over 1,500 litres of crude oil to produce enough single-use nappies for a newborn baby until they become potty trained (at 2.5 years).
The production of single-use baby nappies has the greatest environmental impact. According to a Life Cycle Analysis conducted by The University of Queensland, more than 90% of water, energy consumption and land use occurs during the pre-use stage of the single-use nappy life cycle (softwood production, pulping and nappy industrial production).
CO2 emissions: Likewise, the use of single-use nappies by an average child over two and a half years would result in a global warming impact of approximately 550 kg of CO2 equivalents. This equates to an estimated total global warming potential in the EU-28 of approximately 3.3Mt of CO2 equivalents per year (assuming there are 15 million babies using nappies).
Since they are designed to be disposed of after being used just once, once used, these nappies containing excreta are generally thrown away with other household waste.
In 2017, it was estimated that 6.7 million tonnes of single-use nappies were generated in the EU-28 (2.7% of the total municipal solid waste). During the last 10 years in the EU-28, the generation of baby nappy waste has remained above 5.5 million tonnes per year. Most of it ends up landfilled or incinerated.
In Europe, the Fater’s AHP recycling plant, located in Treviso (Italy) is the first-of-its-kind project to recover plastic and other materials from inside single-use nappies. However, the plant only recovers 30% of the materials composing a nappy and addresses a very low proportion of the nappies being consumed in the country – about 10,000 tonne annual capacity (which is only 2% of the single-use nappies consumed annually in Italy).
As it is the case with Fater plant, many other single-use nappy recycling plants
are facing limitations that challenge their ability to fight the single-use nappy problem.
Collecting, cleaning and breaking nappies into their component parts is likely to remain a
complex and expensive activity. This results in the vast majority of single-use nappies
being burnt in incinerators or landfilled.
Sending such a large amount of single-use nappy waste to landfills requires high land occupation rates and the plastic parts can take up to 500 years to break down in a landfill. Also, the toxic chemicals and additives that can be found in some of these products may
leach while degrading or when in water. In addition, when these products end up in incinerators, the burning of plastic and other substances present in the waste releases dangerous substances such as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and other toxins into the air alongside ash waste residues, impacting on public health and food production.
Read more here.
Local authority financial:
As explained, these products are collected under the residual municipal waste stream. Considering that single-use baby nappies are a high proportion of total residual waste, ranging from 2.9 to 12.4% depending on the region, the collection costs related to this waste stream in Europe may be significant. The cost varies from €1 per inhabitant and year in some regions in Greece and Italy, to almost €10 in Ireland.
Furthermore, there are the costs resulting from the final treatment of this waste stream, consisting of incineration, landfill and mechanical biological treatment (MBT). Most Member States currently have landfill and incineration taxes in place for the disposal of non-hazardous municipal waste. The level of taxation ranges widely, depending on the country. The total typical charge to landfill of one tonne of municipal waste in the EU (the tax, plus the middle of the range of gate fees) ranges from €17.50 in Lithuania to up to €155.50 in Sweden. The total typical charge for incineration (tax plus the middle of the range of gate fees) of one tonne of municipal waste in the EU ranges from €46 in Czech Republic to €174 in Germany.
Many manufacturers of baby nappies do not specify all the ingredients used in the products, although some of them might be harmful for children. A recent risk assessment conducted by Anses (the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety) detected a number of hazardous chemicals in disposable nappies that could migrate through urine, and enter into prolonged contact with babies’ skin. The assessment showed that under realistic conditions of use, threshold values were exceeded for several chemicals, including fragrances (butylphenyl methylpropional, hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde), certain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), PCB-126, and all the DL-PCBs, dioxins and furans. Some of these chemicals are added intentionally, such as fragrances that could cause skin allergies. Other identified chemicals could come from contaminated raw materials or manufacturing processes.
Another study by the University of Illinois found that baby nappies contained concentrations of phthalates that were significantly higher than those in other common plastic products. Exposure to phthalates is known to affect the development and function of the cardiovascular, reproductive and endocrine systems. As nappies are in contact with babies’ external genitalia for extended periods of time, there is a reasonable probability that a high quantity of phthalates could be absorbed into their reproductive systems.
Reusable and toxic-free alternatives to single-use baby nappies already exist, and there are a series of advantages related to these reusable products, including benefits for the environment, public health, cities’ budgeting and for consumers’ pockets.
What are reusable nappies?
There are several types of reusable baby nappies. Cotton, bamboo, hemp, microfibre, and a mixture of several of these are the materials generally used in the absorbent part, while waterproof PUL fabric is used for the protector. What differentiates these nappies from single-use ones is that they are laundered and reused many times and considerably reduce waste generation. The only waste is the excreta of the babies which is predominantly treated by the sewerage system.
The different reusable nappy systems can be divided into the following categories:
💩 All-in-ones shaped, fitted nappies with velcro or popper fastenings, which include a waterproof cover. No folding or pinning is required.
💩Shaped nappies – similar to all-in-ones, but wraps or pants have to be purchased separately to provide the waterproof cover. These do not require folding. They are fastened by velcro or poppers.
💩 Prefolds – require folding and a separate waterproof wrap/pant, with fasteners used in some cases.
💩 Wraps/pants are used to hold up nappies and to prevent leakage. They are made from different materials and combinations of materials, such as: nylon, polyester, cotton, wool, PVC, EVA, hemp and polyurethanes. Wraps/pants are not considered as durable for use as nappies, and hence may need to be replaced. For any given size, the frequency of replacement is dependent on the care they receive. Some wraps/pants are adjustable and are designed for use from birth to potty; others are replaced when necessary to fit a growing baby.
Waste prevention: A family that chooses reusable baby nappies can prevent 99% of the waste that would be generated by using single-use ones. These reusable nappies can reduce nearly 900kg of waste generated by one child during the first 2 years of age.
If only 20% of children using nappies switched to reusables, the amount of waste that could be prevented in the EU-28 would be more than 1 million tonnes being generated annually, going from 6.7 to 5.4 million tonnes. Moreover, these nappies can be reused when the baby has grown up, meaning that they could be used by other children, relatives, friends, or others.
💩 Local authorities: This potential waste reduction can be translated into really high economic savings for the municipality, due to lower management and treatment costs (for example, lower collection costs thanks to a reduction in the frequency of collection), as well as a reduction in the costs coming from incineration and landfill.
💩 Consumers: One of the biggest costs in the early years of being a parent are the cost of nappies. According to a survey passed to different environmental organisations working across Europe, the price of a single-use baby nappy across Europe ranges from €0.11 to €0.61 per unit, depending on the country. Considering an average of 6 changes per day from birth to two years (4,380 single-use baby nappies in total) costs can range between €482 and €2,672 per child. On the other hand, a set of 24 all-in-one reusable baby nappies would be needed for the first couple of years of a baby’s life. The price of these reusable nappies varies between €12- €25 per unit, meaning an average total cost of €288 – €600 per child from birth to two years.
The use of reusable nappies results in significant economic savings (between €200 and €2,000) compared to single-use ones. The saving increases if you take into account the fact that reusable baby nappies can be used by different siblings or bought second-hand. Even taking into account the laundering costs, the savings could be up to €1,800 for a first child and significantly more for subsequent children.
CO2 emissions: As indicated previously, on average a single-use baby nappy would result in a
global warming impact of approximately 550kg of CO2 equivalents used over the two and a half years a child is typically in nappies. The carbon footprint of a nappy can be reduced by 40%, equivalent to some 200kg of CO2 equivalents, over the two and a half years, by swapping to reusables. This reduction is possible by washing nappies in a fuller load, outdoor line drying all of the time, not washing above 60°C and reusing nappies either with a second child or acquiring them via the second-hand market.
Resource use: Single-use baby nappies use 20 times more land for production of raw materials and require three times more energy to make than reusable nappies. Although water usage can be higher for reusable nappies, the difference compared to single-use ones is not that representative if washed in a water-efficient front-loading washing machine and line-dried.
The impacts of reusable nappies are highly dependent on the way they are laundered and, in contrast to single-use nappies, it is consumers’ behaviour after purchase that determines most of the impacts from reusable nappies.Therefore, the more conscientious the consumer is during the use of these products (e.g: washing, etc.), the lower is the overall impact.
Health: Also, reusable baby nappies reduce chemical exposure for the baby as the materials next to their skin are almost always plastic-free materials like cotton or bamboo.
Addressing single-use baby nappies requires a systemic approach from their production to their disposal. Apart from the significant environmental, economic and health issues highlighted, it’s also a social justice issue, as the options with the lowest upfront cost are often those with the most potential to damage our health and planet – and so people with the least economic power have the greatest exposure to these dangerous products.
Everyone should have access to better, safer and circular nappies!
Addressing the issue of single-use baby nappies requires a systemic approach from their production to their disposal, and legislation plays a key role in making the transition towards better, safer and circular nappies for everyone.
In line with the circular economy, the European Green Deal and Sustainable Development Goals, European, national and local authorities should adopt a strategy to increase the market for reusable nappies, while ensuring that their single-use equivalents are collected separately and recycled effectively.
Check out our policy briefing to know how!
Report: Existing measures & policy recommendations to minimise the impact of menstrual products, nappies & wet wipes. Zero Waste Europe & Rezero.
Report: Single-use nappies and their alternatives: Recommendations from Life Cycle Assessments. Life Cycle Initiative, UN Environment Programme
Report: The environmental & economic costs of single-use menstrual products, baby nappies & wet wipes.Zero Waste Europe & Rezero.
Policy Briefing: Policy recommendations to make menstrual products, nappies and wet wipes circular.Zero Waste Europe
Blog: Nappy Ever After, a laundry service for nappies. Zero Waste Europe.
Blog: Reusable nappies, a Zero Waste solution to an European problem. Zero Waste Europe
Blog: Dare to imagine a better future. Zero Waste Europe
Blog: Scandale des couches toxiques: quelles alternatives? (Toxic Diaper Scandal: What Alternatives? Zero Waste France (FR)
Blog: Le renouveau des couches lavables (The renewal of washable diapers). Zero Waste France (FR)
#WeChooseReuse | #BreakFreeFromPlastic | #MakeClothMainstream | #ChangeStartsHere | #ChooseToReuse
The Nappy Alliance
Reusable Nappy Week
Real Nappies for London
Friend of the Earth Scotland
Zero Waste Lviv
Zero Waste North West
Zero Waste Montenegro