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Fallacies of Eco-Disposables

10 CommentsFriday, 17 July 2015

Many people choose not to use cloth nappies, but instead use so-called eco-disposables. When asked why – out of interest, not criticism, I hasten to add – they usually say it makes them feel better because they believe they are less damaging from a landfill point of view.

Sorry to disappoint, but that’s not the case at all. The term eco can mean just about anything. From a supplier’s point of view, it roughly translates as “makes people feel better about the environment,” even when there is little basis in fact. Some eco disposables are so named because they are produced according to the most environmentally friendly production methods, like Moltex Oko nappies are. However, this makes no comment at all about their landfill implications. Actually, if you look at the Moltex packaging, the packaging for the nappies is degradable (whoopee!), but there is nothing especially degradable about the nappies themselves.

Other nappies, such as the Tushies, are chemically friendly, rather than landfill friendly. In fact, that company specifically makes no environmental claims at all. So, if you are buying eco disposables to reduce your landfill footprint, I’m afraid you’ve been misled. And let me confuse you even further, now. Some companies claim that Moltex nappies are compostable. I’m not even going to give you the website address of the Irish company which is worst for this. And I’ll tell you why.

I, as The Nappy Lady, have received two very distraught phone calls from parents (the Dads, in both cases) who happily bought Moltex nappies for full time use, with the intention of composting them. This was their compromise, as they did not feel cloth nappy usage was practical for their situation. They followed the instructions on the Irish website to the letter on building their appropriate composting area.

A few months later, they were on the phone to me, practically in tears. You see, it is all very well trying to compost the odd nappy – it does indeed work fine, and the superabsorbent gel doesn’t break down, but works in exactly the same way as those water-capturing granules for poor soils do (since that is exactly what it is, really). But a couple of nappies a week, or maybe even one a night is one thing.

But imagine how quickly a pile of 35 nappies a week builds up in a suburban city garden. Those of you who use disposables and see how they fill the bin know that that is quite a pile to be disposed of each week. You’d have to have a hell of a composting facility to deal with that. Actually, a major disposables manufacturer in the USA about 15 years ago did a feasibility study on composting their disposables (without an eco label in sight) and decided it was perfectly viable. But they quietly shelved the project, when the ugly questions of who was going to pay for it, how would people separate their diaper waste stream and – most importantly – did a company focused on single use disposable products really want to focus their customers’ minds on the problems of landfill raised their heads.

And what happened to my distressed callers? In both cases, they ended up having the health and safety people at their local council come round to dispose of their home made landfill sites. And that in itself was hugely distressing, given that the whole reason they had got into this situation was because they wanted to reduce landfill problems. Finally, I did contact the Irish website to ask them not to publish misleading information about composting of nappies on their website. They told me, firstly, that they have more space in Ireland to compost and secondly that people in Ireland obviously know more about composting that English people do.

Needless to say, they continue to disseminate nonsense, and deny all responsibility for any landfill problems arising. In any event, whatever goes into landfill, whether it is described as degradable or not, will stay there. UK landfill sites are deliberately managed to minimise degradation, because of the problems of excess methane production. So what goes in stays in, and in 5-10 years will be capped over with concrete anyway.

My own advice is this: if cloth nappies aren’t for you, use Moltex if you feel strongly about the environmental impact of the production process, or Tushies if you are concerned about the chemical impacts. And mainstream disposables if you like. You can always compost your food waste, instead.

Helen McGann
Saturday, 14 November 2015  |  11:46

This is a good article. However, you make no mention of Beaming Baby, who make the claim that their nappies are biodegradable. I understand that this is only any use if the material isn't buried, but would you agree that they are a better choice than non-biodegradable? We used cloth nappies for our children most of the time, but found that disposables were more convenient when travelling/visiting, and thought that biodegradable would be the least bad option.

Monday, 16 November 2015  |  11:52

There are lots of types of "eco disposables" and i have come across beaming baby. They may be biodegradable but it will have to be under the right conditions. If you bury them in your own garden they will eventually biodegrade (we don't recommend this by the way!). If you send them to landfill we wouldn't expect them to biodegrade any quicker than standard disposables. In my opinion they are no different to standard brands and in some ways worse as people may buy them believing they will biodegrade within the normal rubbish system.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016  |  13:31

What about the disposable Gnappy inserts? Gnappy claim they can be composted and break down as quickly as a banana skin. They show pictures on their website of how the inserts decompose over the course over a few weeks. Their absorbent core is made out of wood pulp and it doesn't have a waterproof cover, hence them only being inserts to out inside the Gnappy pouched and pants, which are re-used like cloth nappies.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016  |  11:34

Hi Maud, Many things even pampers can be composted at home but you'll need a large area to do this for the 5500 nappies the average child goes through. Any human faeces should NEVER be composted as compost bins won't get to a higher enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria. Faeces SHOULD ALWAYS be put down the toilet so that it goes through to water plants for proper cleaning. It is always best to use have products that reduce waste, or can be reused before products that are recycled or composted. It's far more efficient use of resources. The amount of water and electricity used in making disposable products normally far exceeds that used by washing cloth nappies.

Anne Balme
Thursday, 4 February 2016  |  21:05

I mostly use washable nappies, but I have also used disposable nappies. I mostly use beaming baby and if you put them in the compost bin, they go in a year. However, you cant compost them all, only a few a year, unless you have a massive heap, which most of us don't. I hope, although I am not an expert in refuse, that they will biodegrade in landfill. It may take more than one year as the conditions are not as ideal as in a compost bin, I am sure that they will break down much quicker than a standard nappy. I would love to have only used washable nappies, but it just wasn't practical. I hope this helps.

Laura-Jean Iago
Saturday, 14 May 2016  |  12:19

Does anyone have any info on Naty nappies and how bio-degradable they are? How long do they take to decompose at the land-fill for example?
Many thanks.

Monday, 16 May 2016  |  11:40

Hi Laura-Jean, No matter which "eco disposables" you use if they go to landfill they will take hundreds of years to biodegrade as landfill is managed to minimise decomposition. You can buy nappies in your own garden and they will decompose as you won't be managing the environment to slow decomposition. WE DO NOT recommend you bury them in your own garden as you will need a HUGE area set aside and will be creating your own landfill site. Human solid waste should always be flushed into the sewage system as well rather than put straight into the soil to minimise spread of disease.

Thursday, 15 December 2016  |  22:28

Wow. SO glad I've found this information! I've been using Naty the past few months when out and about as I couldn't be bothered with cloth in this circumstances. I believed that they'd break down quickly. This article, and your responses, have been inspiring for me to ditch the disposables again. Thankyou.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018  |  12:09

Thanks, this was a very helpful article - so easy to throw guilt money down the drain! I also found this study (albeit a bit outdated) which seems to imply that lifetime greenhouse emissions for disposable vs reusable are roughly equivalent, however most emissions from disposable actually come through the manufacturing process rather than as a result of landfill; so perhaps the low-manufacturing emissions nappies like Moltex are actually a reasonable compromise?

Saturday, 7 April 2018  |  21:11

The study you refer to is the environmental life cycle analysis and it proves that cloth users have the total influence over how big a carbon footprint they have. If you tumbledry every time your carbon footprint will be larger than disposables however if you wash no higher than 60deg (which you shouldn't anyway), ideally air dry as much as possible, reuse your nappies on subsequent children (or sell them on for reuse) then your carbon footprint will be 40% smaller than disposables and of course no landfill. Full details of this study are on this site.

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