How to choose a low-environmental impact diposable diaper?

Background

We live in the UK but are going on vacation to California for a month.

Cloth diaper

Cloth diaper

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Unlike previous month-long visits with toddlers, when I brought my own cloth diapers and happily enough washed and dried them while out there, this time I am going to use disposable nappies. The tumble drier at my folks' house strips terry nappies bare, and they are very bulky to haul back and forth in our luggage. I need day and night nappies for my 22 month old, plus night-time pull-ups for my 5-year-old.

Being an eco-freak, I researched which disposable brand to buy. I wanted an option which would at least reduce the environmental impact of using diposable nappies -- both on holiday and occasionally at home (I often prefer to use disposables when on a long cycle ride, for instance, just because it means a lot less bulk to carry). These are my findings: an analysis that is obviously incomplete and out-of-date the moment I finish it (late 2009).

What's Wrong With Disposable diapers (nappies)?

In spite of using cloth nappies 10 years, I hadn't really looked into this before. So here's the upshot:

  • Fill up landfills (or sewage works)
  • Chlorine-based bleach: used on paper cover, cotton materials, and even hidden wood cellulose contents
  • Sodium Polyacrylate (the most absorbent stuff inside the nappy, turns to 'gel' as it fills with urine)
  • Plastic (especially on tabs) and polyesters (bonded to the paper to help it distribute wee better, keep wetness in, or pass urine only one way.
  • Perfumes, latex (sort of a baddy), various unpleasant chemicals (stuff in paper for instance, that isn't nice next to the skin), lotions.
This is not to say that cloth diapers have no environmental impact; but I'm not dealing with that huge debate. I'm just concerned with reducing the possible environmental impact of the above standard ingredients in a disposable diaper.

I'll take them in turn:

  • Landfills: 2-4% of all domestic waste. Hard to get away from this with any disposable option; although 'flushable' nappies attempt to provide an alternative, more about that later.
  • Chlorine: No Bleaching at all is an option (my favourite). Else 'Oxygen bleaching' is usually the alternative: that means using one or more of the following: hydrogen peroxide, sodium percarbonate and/or sodium perborate. All are considered to have milder environmental impacts (in a manufacturing context, read more here) than chlorine-based bleach .
  • Absorbent filler: wood cellulose is better than sodium polyacrylate, but bulkier (and I said elsewhere that a lower bulk option was my primary reason for choosing a disp).
  • Plastic and polyesters: The environmental impact of these is complicated. The usual alternative is cotton, but that is a horrendous crop environmentally.
  • Perfumes, random chemicals, etc.: Minor considerations, but fundamentally, I'm all in favour of leaving out unnecessary ingredients: especially smelly ones.

Research Methods

Update! I have actually used a few more makes now. But mostly, sad to say, all I've done is read websites and discussions on the Internet, especially manufactures own websites. Pay me a proper wage to write this article and I'll stomp to make some long-distance phone calls and pay for proper research papers to produce some better results. I do try to stick to reputable websites and sources.

Results

Brands researched: Asda Go Eco Baby, Bambo Nature (Swedish), BioBaby (Mexican), EarthPure (Natural Baby, discontinued), GDiapers (Weenies, Eenies), Huggies Pure & Natural, Nature Babycare (aka Nature Boy and Girl), Moltex Oko (German), Sainsbury Little Eco, Seventh Generation, Swillet (very hard to get info), TenderCare, TenPure, Tushies, Wiona (German)

Every so-called green disposable nappy says:

  • No chlorine used.
  • No perfumes.

Almost every single one also says:

  • No latex
  • no lotions
  • Hypoallergenic (not that I care, but thought I'd mention it)
In contrast, Huggies Pure & Natural: highlights its Vitamin E and Aloe Lotion.

Many** of them claim to have reduced the polyacrylate content, replacing it with more wood cellulose. In some cases this makes the nappy notably less absorbent; you may end up needing more of the so-called 'green' disposable diapers than the regular sort (obviously reducing any environmental gains to be had by going for the 'green' option at all). **Not: Huggies Pure and Natural.

Many: use mostly or even entirely biodegradable materials: so less plastic and polyester welded to the paper, including Moltex Oko, Nature BabyCare, Seventh Generation. These biodegradable materials are often corn-starch based (does that mean using a food crop as disposable clothing? I am not sure about that being acceptable). Moltex Oko, Tushies and Wiona probably are more biodegradable than most -- but is that so helpful? Nothing biodegrades much in landfills or incinerators, anyway.

Most, including Bambo Nature BabyCare, Seventh Generation and Tushies mention being free of TBT (Tributyl tin, a chemical in lots of things including plastics, thought to have unpleasant hormonal effects). Many mention being free of other unpleasant chemicals typically in disposable diapers.

Some of them come in a bag which itself is compostible (Moltex Oko, Nature BabyCare).

Some use organic cotton for the fabric parts (eg., Huggies Pure & Natural).

Only Tushies uses only wood pulp as the interior absorbent agent (no polyacrylate).

Only Seventh Generation discloses all of its ingredients publicly.

Seventh Generation dye their white dipes a nice light tan colour, so that they'll look less bleached (sigh).

Sizing is an issue with most of the eco-friendly disposable diapers. Customer feedback is that they frequently come up a size small. So if a baby/toddler's size in conventional disposable nappies is size 3, buy a size 4 in almost any of the eco-disps (although NOT Moltex Oko or Nature BabyCare, their sizing is fine, in my experience). And Tushies come up big if anything -- I ended up using a 'toddler' Tushies nappy on my 5 yr old who normally needs size 6. All kind of a pain, really, unless you don't mind wasting money buying sizes that might not be right at all.

Compostible: Only Wiona (and Gdiapers) make this claim (Swillet may also qualify, but hard to get info)

Misc.: Tendercare says it's more absorbent than other green nappies, BioBaby says it has no optical brighteners.

Note I didn't talk about cost differences... well, the green nappies work out more expensive. Typically about 25% more in the UK or USA compared to premium disps (and therefore a lot more than the budget/value diapers). And about DOUBLE the price for the largest size pull-up (so 35-40p each, vs. 20p each for a size 6 pull-up in Lidl, or Big-Brand pull-ups bought in bulk if a premium brand in supermarkets). Buget/value lines typically have more plastic than the premium brands in them (so more tributyl tin on them, for instance). The most expensive of the green dispies seems to be Tushies; most of them you can only get by mail order in the UK, so have to add on postage costs.

As for performance, you'll find raves and pans everywhere on the Net for each sort. I've tried Seventh Generation, Bambo Nature, Nature Babycare, Tushies, Moltex Oko & Sainsbury LOs Eco, and they all performed well enough for me. Tushies are the most panned and least reliable, I believe. They are also the bulkiest (no SAP, after all). And Tushies sticky tabs are pants -- I had to use masking tape to keep them on, sometimes.

BUT Which One is the MOST biodegradable, and uses the LEAST chlorine, plastics, synthetic textiles and nasty chemicals including polyacrylate? you ask (reasonably). I can't say because the answer is constantly changing. Most of the manufacturers are continuing to try to decrease the plastic, polymer and polyacrylate content of their so-called green nappies. This online article, dated 2007 I think, is a brave and thorough attempt to provide data to answer those questions, and even she doesn't come up with a single best all-round eco-disp suggestion (although I think she says elsewhere that she continues to use 7th Generation herself). If I have to try to rank them, from best to not so best, my gut feeling is that:

Tushies > Wiona > Moltex Oko > NatureBabycare which about = most the others.

Flushables

GDiapers are the brand name of a flushable diaper system, originally from Australia, I think also marketed as Weenies (or Eenies). Idea is that you have a washable and reusable poly-laminated fabric outer wrap (only need 3-5 of these), with a biodegradable and disposable clip-in soft nappy interior, suitable for being flushed down an ordinary toilet. These have proved very popular in the USA, can widely be bought online and even in some stores in the USA.

Do they flush well -- is it a better option than sending them to landfill? Well... it's iffy. The wet-only ones can be composted, that is indisputable; but if you can handle urine-filled nappies on your compost heap, you might be just as willing to take the plunge and use cloth. There are also a fair few anecdotes online of people who found their sewage systems backed up when they tried Gdiapers (expensive call-outs to plumbers to resolve the problems). The City of Vancouver undertook a detailed analysis and basically concluded that the small amount of absorbent gel in the nappies will tend to clog up their sewage pumps; AND the wood pulp blocks UV light, delaying the decomposition of other types of sewage. They advise that people still bag the biodegradable Gdiaper inners and treat it as regular solid waste (so back to landfills or incineration, after all).

The GDiapers people counter that their product won't clog your drains or sewage works, as long as users rip open the inner, spill out the contents and stir them around the toilet before flushing (ooh, lovely). They also object to the City of Vancouver analysis on various other grounds. My gut feeling is that, environmentally, flushing is only marginally preferable to landfill. I wonder if you send your green-waste to the Council for composting, if their compost heaps could safely handle some faeces on Weenies -- but probably still against the law, so I don't suggest you try it!

GDiaper flushables also work out as a more costly option than any of the eco-disps, except perhaps Tushies.

Conclusions

Sadly, I'm back to my plan before I thought that maybe I should do some proper research.

When we go to California, for my 22 month old, I'm going to buy the first eco-friendly disp I see on sale in Target (or whichever supermarket). I wouldn't trust Gdiapers in my folks' drains, and Gdiapers work out too expensive, anyway.

I am somewhat partial to Seventh Generation, because they disclose all their ingredients, but otherwise there isn't a lot in it. I don't want to experiment with different sorts, or to buy in large bulk (reducing postage costs per diaper) because I only need the 'sposies on holiday.

In the future in the UK, I feel okay about buying any of the available brands in shops (Nature BabyCare, Sainsbury Little Ones Eco or Moltex Oko. Tushies are better environmentally than those makes, but the postage to get any Tushies is offputting, especially when I am overall such a low volume user of disposable nappies.

I don't know about the 5-year-old. Hopefully I will find a size 6 pull-up option in eco-friendly flavour in the stores. At home we like Bambo Nature, not least because they have cute Dinosaurs on them (some of the other Size 6 pull-ups have very 'babyish' motifs. I suppose it will depend whether my wallet wins (Lidl size 6 pull-ups are cheap) or my conscience (Bambo Nature size 6 pull-ups with postage are quite dear, but at least we know they work, and they have a nice design). I don't think any eco-friendly nappy/diaper manufacturer but Bambo Nature does a size 6 pull-up.

Useful links: Sodium Polyacrylate (SAP).
How disposable diapers are made: MadeHow, Industry website.
TCF vs. ECF, and does it matter with regard to diapers, anyway?

Image By Ossi Mauno (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


3 Comments

by Bernard on 29 November 2010 Reply
Diapers were tested by the DTI(uk)nearly 20 years ago in closely controled cells and data obtained every 10 mins over 700 hours; co2,ch4, h2o content, volume reduction,temperature (to kill seeds),ph,etc.

Results showed little difference between 100% green waste and that containing 30% diaper additions(pulp &Sap; and those which included 5% 6mm Polyester crimped fibres in the fluff pulp.The main problem was compost screening into horticultural grade because of top sheets.Ihave used this compost at home.Please do not knock synthetic fibres in the pulp.

by Ashli on 15 May 2010 Reply
I was wondering if you considered signing up for a diaper service for the few weeks you are in California. It would solve the bulk issue and I believe I have seen adds for a diaper service in my area for about $20 a week for new born and I'm sure you would need far less than that with a toddler and a preschooler.
by Julii Swindells on 15 November 2010 Reply
Most diaper services use prefolds which I don't like at all. You're right, I should have looked into it, though.
by Tricia on 30 March 2010 Reply
Great article!!!!

I am sort of from the 'enemy' camp - i.e. we produce much of the 'plastic' content in disposable diapers : and work very very hard all the time to reduce the environmental impact.

At the end of the day it is our job to ensure that the impact of disposables (which, let's face it, mums love for their convenience) is less than that of the cotton alternatives.

Is their some sort of discuss forum going on somewhere?

Keep up the good work!

by Anna on 17 November 2010 Reply
Interesting research... I've come to the conclusion that it's best to toilet train children at a young age so as to avoid the lengthy use of any sort of nappies. Nanny for 15 years and mum of 1.
by Matt Lawrence on 28 November 2010 Reply
Agreed, Anna. I think when possible, the earlier the better. The parent, or caregiver begins to get out of the realm of toilet training, and into the realm of ec, or diaper free, or some amalgam of all of it. Which is great on a variety of levels.

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