The toy industry is the world’s most plastic-intensive industry, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, with millions sent to landfill every year after barely being used. The use of the formula also has a huge environmental impact, which is rarely looked into. Most of the formulas are made with powdered cow’s milk, which requires a whopping 4,700 liters (1034 gallons) of water to produce just 1 kg (35 oz) of powder. Indeed, 1 kg of infant formula releases between 11 and 14 kg (388 and 494 oz) of greenhouse gases when fed to infants and toddlers.
As part of my desire to clean up some of my parenting choices, I want to examine my baby’s diaper wear. We throw away around three billion nappies every year in the UK, which accounts for around 2-3% of all household waste, one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste globally. Globally, more than 300,000 diapers are disposed of every minute. In the US, the scale of the problem is magnified and the industry fueling it is valued at $71bn (£61bn). Most diapers are made from two non-biodegradable materials, a waterproof polyethylene back layer and a polypropylene inner layer, which means that when they eventually end up in landfills, they’re likely to stay there for 500 years or more.
Reusable nappies are often touted as the sustainable solution, so I ask a friend who has used cloth nappies for her kids if she can lend me some to try. I’m a little afraid to start the experiment: I have visions of diapers hanging to dry on every high surface in our small apartment. I’m bracing myself for the initial financial shock: a starter pack can cost up to £100 ($115) or more, which can make the idea of using reusable materials daunting or outright unaffordable for some people. I’m also wondering how much my energy bill will increase this winter if I increase my use of both the washer and dryer. But I hope this can be easier than I imagine and can become a permanent green trade that will help me reduce my carbon footprint.
“There are lots of ways to cut the cost of greener choices,” says Gale, though options can vary wildly depending on where you live. Various social media sites and second-hand markets offer second-hand reusable nappies, and in the UK so-called nappy libraries allow parents to borrow nappies and try out different brands. I take a pack from my friend and buy a pack of biodegradable bamboo nappy liners for £2.50 ($2.87). I also buy a dry pail – essentially a plastic bucket with a tight lid for storing soiled nappies before washing – for £15 ($17.19).
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I’m glad I chose the used route, because it’s not only more sustainable, but it’s also cheaper. And I’m grateful for this cost savings when my careful plan falters at the first hurdle. My daughter seems to hate the feel of reusable nappies on her skin, which can feel wetter than the moisture-absorbing disposable alternatives she’s used to. They’re also much bulkier than her disposable diapers, and her extra material causes her clothes to tug at her crotch, giving her a cowboy-girl stride. At this stage in infancy, getting her to switch from the disposable diapers she’s been wearing since birth to an altogether bulkier, wetter cloth is perhaps too big a question, and I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost the boat.
But what does science say: would it have been a more ecological choice? A 2008 Environment Agency study found that reusable nappies may have a 40 percent lower impact on global warming than disposable nappies. But above all, the positive impact of switching to reusable nappies depends on the eco-awareness of the consumer. Many people trying to reduce their environmental impact wash at low temperatures, but reusable nappies should be washed at 60°C (140°F) to kill bacteria and machines should not be overfilled, according to the Nappy Alliance. a coalition of reusable nappy suppliers. A study by the Life Cycle Initiative, a project launched in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme, found that washing reusable materials hotter than 140°F (60°C), using a tumble dryer or partially filling the machine may actually completely negate their positive environmental impact and could make the use of disposable diapers preferable from a climate change perspective.
The study highlights the importance of considering the entire life cycle of any product to assess how environmentally friendly it is. “The highest impacts of reusable diapers occur not in the manufacturing phase but in the use phase, whereas for disposable diapers, the design of the diaper (the weight and its materials) together with its end-of-life handling are the important aspects of life stages of the cycle”, write the authors Philippa Notten, Alexandra Gower and Yvonne Lewis.