Increasingly, global consciousness is turning to the problem of plastic pollution, with the annual flow of plastic into the ocean alone estimated to nearly triple by 2040 to 29 million tonnes per year. But despite widespread initiatives to curb the use of plastic straws, single use plastic bags, and plastic bottles, unsustainable materials and methods seem to be ubiquitous in the products we buy for our children – from bottles, which shed millions of particles of microplastics, to disposable wipes and nappies that never biodegrade.
The toy industry is the most plastic intensive industry in the world, according to the United Nations Environment Programme – with millions sent to landfill each year having barely been used. Even formula use has an enormous environmental impact, which is rarely examined. Most formulas are made from powdered cows’ milk, needing an astonishing 4,700 litres (1034 gallons) of water to produce just 1kg (35oz) of powder. In fact, 1kg of infant formula releases between 11 and 14 kg (388 and 494oz) of greenhouse gases by the time it is fed to babies and young children.
As part of my desire to clean up some of my parenting choices, I want to look at my baby’s nappy consumption. We throw away about three billion nappies each year in the UK, representing an estimated 2% to 3% of all household waste – one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste globally. Globally, more than 300,000 nappies are disposed of every minute. In the US, the scale of the problem is magnified, and the industry that feeds it is valued at $71bn (£61bn). Most nappies are made from two non-biodegradable materials – a polyethylene waterproof back layer and a polypropylene inner layer – meaning that when they ultimately end up in landfill, they will likely remain there for 500 years or more.
Reusable nappies are often touted as the sustainable fix – so I ask a friend who has used washable nappies for her children if she can lend me some to try. I’m slightly dreading starting the experiment – I have visions of nappies hanging to dry from every high surface in our small flat. I’m bracing myself for the upfront financial shock – a starter bundle can cost upwards of £100 ($115) or more, which can make the idea of using reusables daunting, or entirely inaccessible for some people. I’m also wondering how much my energy bill will rise this winter if I’m increasing my use of both the washing machine and its dryer setting. But I’m hopeful that this might be easier than I’m imagining, and could become a permanent green swap that will help me lower my carbon footprint.
“There are lots of ways of lowering the cost of making greener choices,” says Gale, though the options can vary hugely depending on where you live. Various social media sites and second-hand marketplaces offer second-hand reusable nappies, and in the UK, so-called nappy libraries let parents borrow nappies and try different brands. I take a bundle from my friend, and buy a pack of biodegradable bamboo nappy liners for £2.50 ($2.87). I also buy a dry pail – essentially a plastic bucket with a tight lid to store the soiled nappies before washing – for £15 ($17.19).
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I’m glad I go down the second-hand route, because not only is it more sustainable but it’s also more affordable. And I’m grateful for this cost saving when my careful plan falters at the first hurdle. My daughter seems to hate the feel of the reusable nappies on her skin, which can feel wetter than the moisture-wicking disposable alternatives she is used to. They are also much bulkier than single-use nappies, and the extra material causes her clothes to pull in the crotch, giving her a cowboy kid gait. At this stage of toddlerhood, getting her to switch from the disposable nappies she has been wearing since birth, to an altogether bulkier, and wetter feeling fabric is possibly too big an ask, and I can’t help but feel we have missed the boat.
But what does the science say – would it have been a greener choice? One Environment Agency study in 2008 found that reusable nappies can have a 40% lower global warming impact than disposable nappies. But crucially, the positive impact of switching to reusable nappies depends on how eco-conscious the consumer is. Many people looking to reduce their environmental impact wash at low temperatures, but reusable nappies must be washed at 60C (140F) in order to kill bacteria, and machines should not be overfilled, according to the Nappy Alliance, a coalition of reusable nappy providers. A study by the Life Cycle Initiative, a project launched in partnership with the UN Environment Programme, found that washing reusables over 60C (140F), using a tumble dryer, or partially filling the machine can actually negate their positive environmental impact entirely, and could make it preferable to use single-use nappies from a climate change stand point.
The study highlights the importance of looking at the entire life cycle of any product in order to weigh up how eco-friendly it is. “The highest impacts of reusable nappies occur not in manufacturing but in the use phase, while for single-use nappies, the design of the nappy (the weight and its materials) along with its management at end-of-life are the important life cycle stages,” write authors Philippa Notten, Alexandra Gower and Yvonne Lewis.