For our 8th live chat we had the pleasure of speaking to Zion, a science writer, editor for JUNO magazine, and mother of two. She has just finished working on The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting, a science-based book of practical ways for parents to lower their climate impacts, from reducing reliance on driving to choosing more ethical meals, with the aim of helping people to make greener lifestyle choices that are based on scientific research.
To our delight, the book contains a chapter on Nappy Science which, she told us, was actually one of the hardest to write. The chapter focuses on exposing some of myths behind cloth nappying, including the flawed Environmental Agency (EA) report that claims that using cloth nappies is just as bad for the environment as using disposables.
Q: Were you able to recalculate any of their figures from the EA report?
A: One of the problems with the EA report is some of the data they used is not representative of the UK population. For example, they used different sizes of samples to compare cloth vs disposable use. I did my own surveys of the reusable nappy community to draw conclusions from larger groups of people and had very different results to the EA data.
Q: Can you go into more detail about how your results differed from theirs?
A: For example, the Environment Agency surveyed 2,000 parents using disposable nappies, compared with just 117 using washables, to draw broad conclusions about nappy use in the UK. Much of their report is based around the fact that so many reusable nappy users allegedly rely on heavy use of laundry services. This was based on their survey of 22 laundry service providers, but did not assess how much of the reusable nappy community uses this cleaning service and uses it regularly. I surveyed 205 cloth nappy users from all over the UK through two sources: a popular cloth nappy organization and a parenting magazine (Juno), and of the 205 people only 6 had ever used a commercial laundry service.
Q: Didn’t the EA report also assume that people were ironing nappies?
A: Yes, the EA report does assume that people iron their nappies. This was also something I surveyed and of course not one of the 205 people who completed my survey irons their nappies, ever. And it’s not just about the ironing: the report also assumes that all nappies bought are new, without taking into consideration pre-loved ones, nappy libraries and the fact that a family with more than one child is likely to reuse the same nappies. The flaws in the EA’s report are disappointing because so many people I have met have believed the report and the media coverage of it and therefore use disposables instead of cloth. Also, a lot of the data the EA used is based around the idea of pesticide use in growing cotton, blindly ignoring the fact that many people use nappies made of organically-grown cotton. The chapter also looks at reasons for not using disposables beyond environmental concerns. For example, the fact that endocrine-disrupter hormones were found in mainstream nappies in Germany in the early 2000s.
Q: Have you been able to speak to anyone from the EA about the report? I’m surprised that they were happy to publish something like that – you don’t have to know about nappies or stats to question those kind of numbers.
A: I did speak to the EA but they referred me to a more recent updated report of the original one, which they did because of all the criticism they received the first time around. The new report only slightly changes some of the assessments and still concludes that cloth nappies are no more eco than disposable, based on their flawed research.
Q: I can see how you compare the energy use between disposable and cloth, but how do you compare different sorts of ecological harm, such as ‘this one uses more fossil fuels, but this one causes landfill problems’?
A: The EA looked at the methane captured on landfill sites and gave that as a plus for disposable nappies because that methane is used as energy. Doing this, they blindly ignored that all the methane would not come from nappies alone and that not every landfill site in the UK is eligible for energy recovery. There are in fact strict requirements that have to be adhered to on a landfill site before it is eligible, and only some of the methane released can be captured from a site, so it’s not a sustainable solution to keep creating more on the basis of energy capture. The Guardian newspaper eco-journalist Leo Hickman said that the report “can’t help but leave me suspecting the influence of the mighty nappy manufacturers in all this somewhere”. Much of their data is both strangely very detailed and also deeply flawed. I’d love for someone to redo the report accurately.
Q: Moving on from the many flaws of the EA report – from your research were most cloth nappy users part time or full time? And was their motivation environmental or cost saving?
A: Most people were motivated by environmental concerns. Many were also motivated by fears of chemicals in the nappies, but they cited environmental alongside that. Only 2 people gave chemicals as their only motivator. Most said they were full time but I didn’t clarify that term.
Q: Do you feel that the estimate of 5% of parents use cloth is accurate or could it be more now?
A: I think it’s more than 5% personally.
Q: Did you ask people how happy they were with cloth vs disposable? And if they felt they were good value?
A: I didn’t ask that question specifically, but I left room for comments and around 15/205 people specifically wrote that cloth nappies are more comfortable or better value.
Q: Do you know if there has been any research into the effect of the chemicals in disposables on a baby’s bottom?
A: TBT was found in disposable nappies in Germany, in mainstream brands no different to those sold here. This was in the late 1990s. The Womens Environmental Network tested UK nappies and found that they contained TBT too. TBT is an endocrine-disrupter that is also known as the “gender bender hormone”. WEN called for its removal from all nappies in 2000. I contacted WEN for an update on this issue but received no response. There are also concerns that using disposable nappies are not subject to government controls or independent testing and disposable nappy manufacturers do not need to disclose the contents.
Q: Have there been any large studies on walking and nappies? Some people claim that cloth nappies can delay walking. I had a quick look and couldn’t find any evidence for that.
A: Researchers have found that using bulky cloth nappies does have an impact on the way babies walk, but they haven’t linked this to any long-term problems. Also, infant exercise has been found to negate any problems. For example “just 12 minutes of daily practice doing stepping movements in an upright position increases the frequency of newborn stepping, maintains stepping during the dormant period when stepping normally disappears, and accelerates the onset of independent walking compared to infants who receive only passive exercise” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/5019791).
Also, once the assessed babies had their nappies removed, they walked perfectly well naked, so the cloth nappies were causing more stumbles (missteps) but weren’t causing actual developmental harm. I think it’s safe to say that all children benefit from having some nappy-free time, generally. Wearing tight leggings is also one of the worst things for babies who are learning to walk.
Q: Did you work out the energy costs of washing at 40 vs washing at 60? Also, how can we quantify the environmental impact of various detergents/washing agents?
A: 60 deg washes use a LOT more energy than 40 deg – in fact 30 deg is best. 40 deg in a modern washing machine is adequate for urine-soaked nappies. For faeces, a 60 degree wash is recommended to kill any lurking pathogens. If the nappy can’t handle that, a 40 degree wash is probably fine.
I looked into detergents and found that many mainstream detergents are really only marginally better at cleaning than washing nappies in hot water alone. There is a good Ethical Consumer report that assesses different alternative washing detergent brands for their eco-credentials. Bio D came out on top with a score of 20/20 if I recall correctly.
Also, speaking of environmental impact, avoiding ‘biodegradable’ nappies is good, unless you can compost them at home. They are not necessarily more environmentally friendly when disposed off in landfills because a slower rate of biodegradation is actually more environmentally friendly (releases less methane).
Q: Have you got any other take home messages from your book?
A: Small changes – that is what I advocate in my book. Small changes can create a much healthier planet for our babies, and are realistic for most families. Switching from less eco-friendly disposable to reusable nappy brands, to more eco ones. Same goes for wipes and making and using cloth wipes. Or only doing full loads, or washing half loads on the half load option. Cloth nappies are much, much better for the environment than disposables. Also, don’t be afraid to do your research. Look up studies and see who did them, where and when. There’s a lot of inaccurate information out there which I have tried to dispel in my book. Also, if you use a tumble drier, there are things you can do to minimise the energy usage and environmental impact.
Thank you so much to Zion for the really insightful chat! Her book, The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting, will be available through mainstream retailers in early September, or you can order it from Waterstones and New Internationalist shop.