we could stop the myth that washable nappies are just as bad for the environment as using disposables?

We know where this idea came from: in 2005 the Environment Agency (EA) published a nappy life cycle analysis that said so – but the data on washing nappies was very poor, based on a small number of parents using terry nappies and speculation about boiling, tumble-drying and ironing the nappies. In 2008 the EA brought out an updated nappy life-cycle analysis. It concluded that using real nappies could have up to 40% lower carbon impacts than disposables if the nappies were washed at less than 60 degrees and line-dried. However it said washing nappies would have higher carbon impacts than single-use nappies if the reusables were boiled and tumble-dried.

These reports had a really positive impact on the real nappy industry. They made us talk about washing nappies and look at how nappies can be laundered with the minimum carbon and environmental impacts. However, it also set off this myth that washing nappies is no better for the environment than using “disposable” nappies.

But there’s an issue: Defra doesn’t know how people wash nappies. However at Real Nappies for London we do. We have an on-going survey where we ask people how they wash and dry their nappies. Only 1% say they wash nappies at 90 degrees and less than 6% tumble-dry. This means that we can safely say real nappies are not only zero waste, they also have significantly lower carbon impacts than disposables.

Why is this important?
1 because at the moment it looks like nappies will not appear in the Government’s Waste Prevention Plan for England 2013.

2 people who use real nappies tell us that friends and relatives actually discourage them from using them saying that washing nappies is just as bad for the environment as disposables, so why bother?

At Real Nappies for London we know that people are afraid of the washing. That means the opportunity to persuade people to try real nappies and thus reduce disposable nappy waste is already difficult. This myth that washing nappies is just as bad for the environment as using 4-5,000 single-use nappies that are sent to landfill where they emit methane, a potent climate change gas is not helpful. It discourages those parents that are doing the right thing and using real nappies and it puts off parents, nurseries and maternity wards that are open to using real nappies.

But is this a problem? Has this myth slowed down the growth of real nappy culture? Yes, it has. Has this been a bad thing? Not necessarily. People who decide to use real nappies have to work hard to do it. They have to get information, choose which nappy to buy, pay a high upfront cost (compared to weekly spend on disposables). This tends to make them determined to make them work and take great pride in their success. This makes for a slower more sustained growth of real nappy culture and this may not be a bad thing in the long term. One thing is for sure. There are a lot more people using real nappies in London in 2013 than there were 10 years ago plus the nappies have improved and how people wash them has changed for the better!

For more on this theme see Remember the Waste Hierarchy September 2011