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Minimising the environmental impact of disposable nappies is very important to nappy manufacturers. Continuous innovation and new technology ensure that the impacts associated with the manufacture and use of disposable nappies are reduced.

Note to parents: disposable nappies should always be correctly disposed of in a bin, according to manufacturers guidelines.

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) report on disposable and cloth nappies published by the UK Government Environment Agency in 2005 confirmed that there is ‘little or no’ difference in the overall level of environmental impacts of disposable and washable nappies. This is largely due to the fact that disposable nappies contribute to household waste while washable nappies consume energy, water and detergents. An update to the LCA (published in October 2008, again by the Environment Agency in conjunction with WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme) and DEFRA, confirmed these findings and found that since the first study manufacturers had made a significant 12% reduction in the global warming potential of disposable nappies. This is due primarily to a weight reduction and a reduction in disposable nappy manufacturing energy requirements.

The update showed that ‘the average 2006 disposable nappy would result in a global warming impact of approximately 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents used over the two and a half years a child is typically in nappies. For reusable cloth nappies the study states ‘The baseline scenario based on average washer and drier use produced a global warming impact of approximately 570kg of carbon dioxide equivalents.’ The study showed that ‘the impacts for reusable nappies are highly dependent on the way they are laundered.’

There are many factors which must be taken into account when calculating the overall impacts of any product, for nappies these include raw materials, transportation, manufacturing processes, in-use practices, washing and drying for cloth nappies, and disposal.

There have been significant improvements to disposable nappies in recent years, for example a 40% reduction in weight and volume, compact shrink wrapping in single film packaging and increased energy efficiency. All of these modifications and improvements result in lowered environmental impacts.

Nappies are compatible with prevalent forms of waste management, including waste to energy technologies and industrial composting. However most waste in the UK is currently landfilled as we are only starting to see widespread implementation of alternative technologies. Reducing the amount of biodegradable household waste which goes to landfill is important for the UK so it can meet EU targets and for this reason it is important that we move away from over dependency on landfill.

Disposable nappies are only a small fraction of household waste and an even smaller fraction of landfill waste. This is because household waste is only a fraction of landfill waste, the majority of landfill waste is commercial and industrial waste.

Click here to see the 2008 updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies, published by the Environment Agency’