As the world wakes up to the War on Waste, consumers have become more aware of their purchasing decisions. Reusable baby nappies have been on the rise as a way for parents to save money and not fill up their waste bin. In fact, we have seen more customers turn to reusable nappies, making the decision to go cloth, all because a number of their local supermarkets were sold out of disposable nappies during the global COVID-19 outbreak.
Common single use items are now being labelled as ‘eco’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’, ‘degradable’. Think takeaway packaging, plastic bags, coffee cups. It can all be a bit confusing and when we dig a bit deeper, we may find we are being mis-lead to what the environmental outcome of a product can actually do. There are more ‘eco-disposable’ nappy products popping up, grabbing onto our environmental heartstrings to make us feel like we are doing the right thing.
When it comes to disposable baby nappies, I commonly see the statistic that it takes around 500 hundreds years for a disposable nappy to ‘break down’, implying that the time for a baby nappy to actually disappear will outlive our generations.
‘There is no such thing as Away. When we throw away something, it must go somewhere’
– Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff
So what actually happens to products that end up and break down in landfill?
Let’s get some terms straight first when we talk about the process of stuff breaking down.
When choosing a compostable product, the end processing option for that product to successfully break down is crucial for it to actually compost. This would be either a home compost or industrial compost.
The product should show a compost bin logo or a leaf logo with a certification number somewhere on the packaging. If a product is certified AS5810 this means that the product has been tested and to actually compost and break down in a home compost system. Generally, this will take at least 6 months to happen.
If a product is certified AS4736 it will biodegrade down in a compost facility, where heat and oxygen is regulated.
Take away containers, cutlery and plastic bags are becoming popular biodegradable items to replace single use plastics. Unless these items are destined to an industrial composter and the industriastial composter accepts these items, they will eventually be filtered out and make their way to landfill.
An example of this is a compostable coffee cup. How do the waste sorters at a composting facility (yes, they are real people) distinguish between a certified compostable AS4769 cup and a regular coffee cup? Best practice is to not accept these into the compost facility to avoid plastic contamination in the finished compost.
Compostable and biodegradable products also present an issue within the recycling system as these plant based products do not contain enough recyclable material to be turned into recycled products. A contaminant is something that does not belong in the correct bin and interferes with the repurposing process.
And compostable or biodegradable products that become litter may not break down. They still present as litter as the conditions to be correctly broken down do not exist.
What’s happening in landfills?
For a material to biodegrade, it requires oxygen and heat. When an item goes through the process of breaking down in landfill where there is no oxygen present, it will produce methane (21 times more potent than CO2) and leachate (contaminated water runoff). In the depths of a landfill, there is no oxygen to help with any breakdown process so the product may essentially rot, especially products which have a higher organic or compostable content.
So when we talk about how long it takes for something to break down in landfill, in actual fact, we want to make sure nothing breaks without oxygen to prevent even more emissions (methane) from our waste.
So now that we know the lingo, let’s look a bit more closely to what is in a disposable nappy. A standard disposable nappy will contain around a third of ‘fluff’ made from wood pulp,a third is super absorbent polymers which absorb liquid and a third of non-biodegradable plastics which make up the many layers, elastics and closure tags.
Eco disposables claim to contain 50-70% biodegradable or plant based material within a nappy. There is still non-biodegradable plastic for the closure tags and elastics.
It is not recommended to home compost or send to a composting facility any type of baby nappy due to the risk of pathogens from human waste and the amount of plastic which will be present in the design. Similar to the coffee cup example, even if a nappy does claim to be compostable, it most likely won’t be accepted by the facility.
Reusable Nappies – Swap greenwashing for nappy washing
On the bright side, every reusable nappy you do use, saves one disposable nappy headed to landfill. Even if you used just one reusable nappy a day, this could save up to 1000 disposable nappies heading to landfill until your baby is toilet trained.
Starting with just one reusable nappy a day can make a big difference to waste and emissions, plus the cost of raising a child is significantly lessened with reusable products.
Need help with getting started? Book in your free 1:1 consultation with me – Emma, I’d love to help out.