The Environmental and Health Effects of Disposable Nappies

Cloth nappies have been around for centuries, but single use nappies have been around in their current form for about 2 decades. All of our parents grew up just fine, in cloth nappies, with no adverse affects – especially since they were in VERY bulky terry nappies. All learned to walk, run, and kick ass just fine. People wore cloth nappies who grew up to be Olympic athletes, fight Nazis, climb Everest, and walk on the moon. The bulk clearly does not harm babies or affect their development. *Lack* of bulk in nappies is a very recent phenomenon; it has been normalised in only a couple of decades, to the extent that clothing for tiny humans very often doesn’t fit over a big cloth bum (a feature of the globalised fashion clothing production trade). Before that, for centuries - fluffy bums were normal!
But less light-heartedly: single use nappies contain a heck of a lot of chemicals. The Super-Absorbent Polymer salts are responsible for the explosion in popularity of single use nappies since the millennium – but it's important to note that the SAP salts create an artificial dryness human skin did not actually evolve to need – it is only excessive wetness that skin can't cope with. Regular changing and sufficient absorbency will keep babies nappy rash free and perfectly comfortable.

But, most concerning of all - some of the chemicals in disposable nappies are *known to be toxic, and in levels above that considered safe!*
In 2018, nappies in France were tested by the French government agency ANSES (note – not a campaigning eco-activist anti-plastic organisation, but - the government!) and were found to contain harmful and carcinogenic compounds, including: dioxins, aromatic hydrocarbons, VOCs, perfumes, and the pesticide Glyphosate (Roundup). The report concluded that there was ‘evidence the safety thresholds for several substances had been crossed, and …. it was not possible to exclude a health risk linked to the wearing of disposable diapers.’

Due to globalised manufacturing and the fact that many brands are multinationals, this is not simply a French problem; Pampers are certainly sold in the UK. However, after intense lobbying by nappy manufacturers, a French government minister responded weakly to the report by saying ‘obviously we should keep putting our babies in diapers’. Nothing since has happened, partly because of Covid. I would be very surprised if anything has changed in 3 years. Note that many of these chemicals were also detected in disposables marketed as 'eco'.
Disposable nappies have been around for such a short time that it seems that we are conducting a species-wide real-time public health experiment – the likely health implications would show up decades from now. We do already know that endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and other ‘forever chemicals’ such as PFAs are having a measurable impact on the health of post-WWII generations of adults (increasing cancer rates, declining fertility, and many others).

Babies wear nappies next to their skin, obviously, for up to three years. That’s a long time to be continuously exposed to these sorts of chemicals, 24/7, 365, with as-yet untested effects on their health in later life – is it worth it for your baby to seem ‘comfy’?
Many people think that the disposal (waste) aspect of disposables is their biggest environmental impact, but it’s not so: it’s in the manufacturing; whereas with cloth nappies, it’s in the usage – how you wash and care for them, that dictates the eco impact.

The landfill/incineration aspect is obvious, as it is what the end user sees (bin full of nappies). However, it’s important to look at what goes into a disposable nappy – and single use nappies are made from plastic. Plastic is made from oil, a fossil fuel. There is half a cup of crude oil in EVERY disposable nappy; the average baby uses 5000 nappies, so would consume 1,500L of oil by potty training. That’s a carbon footprint of over a tonne of CO2 emissions – equivalent to a return flight to Europe. Double that for every family with 2 children in disposables.
Another major component of disposable nappies is the absorbent cellulose fluff. This comes from 1 of 2 sources:
1) cotton, which is heavily irrigated, sprayed with pesticides (hence the glyphosate detected in the ANSES study);
2) softwood cellulose. This is harvested from trees, typically fast-growing species like pine, eucalyptus, etc, which are grown in monoculture plantations (often replacing old-growth forest that has been clear cut, to the destructive of native biodiversity. Make no mistake, these tree plantations are green deserts, with very little species biodiversity – and the trees will be cut down before they become carbon sinks and can remove a net amount of CO2 from the atmosphere). After growing for 10-15 years, the trees are harvested, chipped, then the woodchip is soaked in vats of sulphur-based compounds and surfactants, to remove the lignin (this is what makes tree trunks stiff, grasses (apart from bamboo) and leaves don’t have it). This creates a gloopy mass a bit like when you make papier mache, and when it dries, it makes a compound called pulp, which can be further treated to make a substance very like cotton wool – but first, it needs to be washed. The industrial waste water is heavily polluted – it’s not like the soapy detergent water going down your pipes! The cellulose pulp needs to be rinsed…and rinsed… and sometimes bleached white…. and then rinsed again. This all takes thousands of gallons of water.
Now, many people using cloth nappies worry about their water usage. The water used in manufacturing disposable nappies is MANY MANY TIMES MORE than one parent would use washing cloth nappies for 2 children from birth to potty. And remember that domestic waste water can be purified and reused quite easily; industrial waste water is very, very difficult to clean again. The difference, is that you, the end user, have to pay for it - and it is a hefty chunk of your bill; whereas hugely profitable multinationals are not penalised for their heavily polluting production, and so are able to offer disposable nappies at 6p per unit. That is a socioeconomic injustice.
BUT: The biggest environmental impact of disposable nappies is in the fact that they are SINGLE USE, and create constant demand for more resources. Disposable nappies are fuelling the climate emergency, by encouraging demand for unsustainable materials. All of these resources consumed – trees growing for a decade before being turned to sawdust, oil drilled from deep beneath the earth’s surface, turned into plastic via an emissions-heavy process – and a baby will sometimes poop within 5 minutes of the nappy being put on, so it is tossed!

I haven't even talked about the glues, dyes, and perfumes used in disposables, or the transportation costs. Plus, of course, disposal and incineration - transport to landfill, where it will sit, inert, for 5 centuries - yes, that goes for the 'eco disposables' too. They are not going to biodegrade in landfill, I'm afraid. Or incineration - potentially causing nanoplastic air pollution that is not filtered out, never mind the emissions...
The laundering of cloth nappies is generally the largest part of their environmental impact, (though the materials are also significant. They perhaps warrant a separate post). It helps to wash your nappies as efficiently as possible (load your drum correctly; don't over-wash them, avoid tumble drying where possible; don't iron them; don't wash at 90 degrees; wash where possible (e.g. prewash) at a lower temp or shorter cycle. Other ways to ensure that you limit the impact of your nappies are: not to have too many nappies - large stashes are unnecessary, unless you have 3 in cloth or run a nappy library; pass them on when finished; buy second hand where possible.

In short: while cloth nappies don't have no impact on the environment (the only that would have zero impact would be, um, to not have children in the first place 🤦‍♀️ - a bit late, since we're all here! - or to diligently practise EC from birth) - they certainly have far fewer potential health impacts, and the environmental benefits are streets ahead of using disposables - even when you factor in the washing and energy.

Clare Weightman

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