WHAT ABOUT RECYCLING DISPOSABLE NAPPIES?
The Nappy Alliance supports new research and development around the recycling of disposable nappies. However, nappy recycling plants are not widespread and have historically had limited success.
There are currently no nappy recycling facilities operating in the UK. Even if these sites were to develop it would take some time for these facilities to account for a notable proportion of UK nappy waste. One site set up in West Bromwich to recycle nappies failed after only eighteen months because of issues collecting feed source, and an inability to find buyers for its final product.
A new nappy recycling plant has developed in Italy. Nonetheless, this is the first plant of its kind and unproven on a large scale. In fact, sale of the output from nappy recycling is currently against EU regulations.
Even if recycling disposable nappies was a viable option, accurate data on the amount of energy used per tonne of recyclate produced should be assessed. This is extremely important as it will ultimately add to the carbon footprint of disposable nappies within their lifecycle. Any percentage of the product that is still sent to landfill after being through the process should also be disclosed. Parents have a right to be provided with the facts to allow them to make informed decisions as to whether or not such schemes actually represent a benefit to the environment.
In view of this, we believe that the UK cannot solely rely on nappy recycling technologies to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated in the environment by disposables.
WHAT ABOUT BIODEGRADABLE OPTIONS?
A small number of disposable nappies are being marketed as “biodegradable” however they cannot be disposed of in a regular compost bin and still take many years to decompose in landfill. These products generally contain mixed materials which require different environments to degrade and cannot do so in landfill sites or incinerators. The UK does not currently have the infrastructure or facilities to properly process these products, so the majority of ‘biodegradable nappies end up in regular waste streams.
WHAT ABOUT COMPOSTABLE OPTIONS?
There are now compostable plastics (from plant bases) on the market, however, these products can only be composted in an industrial composter. This involves heating the compostable plastics to extreme temperatures and to date the UK has no such facilities in place.
Compostable plastics will not break down in a domestic composting environment and such plastics are causing serious contamination issues in the recycling industry as they are mixed in with regular plastic such as polyethersulfone (PES) and contaminating the stock resulting in it going to landfill instead.
ARE REUSABLE NAPPIES MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY?
Reusable nappies prevent disposable nappies from going to landfill, where they take over 300 years to break down and produce methane gas which adds to global warming. When sent to incineration this produces harmful gases and generally discourages waste reduction which is what our focus should be one with landfill space at capacity.
When assessing the environmental damage caused by disposable nappies, you must also consider them beyond the point of purchase, i.e. the environmental impact of transporting them following use and the impact of incineration / landfill.
With the energy supply of the UK increasingly from zero-carbon sources and with washing machines increasingly energy efficient, the use of reusable nappies is increasingly environmentally friendly.