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FactCheck: rash verdict on nappies

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 16 July 2007

In a new series, FactCheck examines the received wisdom on climate change. First up - cotton nappies good, disposable nappies bad.


It was always presented as a clear-cut choice: cotton nappies are good, disposables are bad.

Disposables may be more convenient, but putting all that cotton, plastic and other unmentionable matter into landfill must be a bad thing. So mothers have been told to return to the old ways of using cotton nappies and washing them.

But is that based on sound evidence? Environment minister Ben Bradshaw told the Commons at the end of last month that there was "no significant difference between any of the environmental impacts of the disposable, home use reusable and commercial laundry systems".

His words were taken to mean that anyone using cotton nappies for environmental reasons need not bother; the cotton nappy campaign was just more political correctness gone mad.

But the report Bradshaw was quoting was based on some controversial assumptions. In fact, it's being revisited by the organisation that produced it. And even then, its conclusions aren't as clear cut as they seem.


The report analyses the environmental impact of nappies throughout their existence, from the growing of cotton and cutting of timber for pulp, to rotting down in a landfill centuries after they are thrown away.

It looks at three different kinds: cloth washed at home, disposables, and cloth washed commercially.

Despite the report's frequently quoted top line - that there's no significant difference - cotton nappies rate slightly better on most measures.

A baby in cloth nappies produces 559kg of CO2 equivalent, while a baby in disposables pumps out 626kg. In fact, cloth nappies win by a small margin on all counts except human and freshwater toxicity (a result of all that washing powder).


However, the report has been criticised for some of the assumptions it makes about nappy users behaviour. Some even come from the groups which helped to produce it.

For example, it assumes that 32 per cent of cotton nappy users wash at 90 degrees, and 10 per cent iron their nappies. It also assumed that some users use fabric softeners and tumble dry their nappies - all behaviours which push the environmental impact up.

Why these surprising assumptions? The Environment Agency's analysis is meant to capture how people actually use nappies, and their research showed that people really do iron their nappies. This is not to make their babies look smart with neat creases - it makes nappies more absorbent, apparently.

But if someone did use cotton nappies as the manufacturers recommend, washing them at 50 degrees or 60 degrees in an energy-efficient washing machine, they would have a lower impact than disposables.

Limited survey

The survey also relied on responses from a very small number of cotton nappy users. In fact, for part of the survey, only two responders replied.

And the Women's Environmental Network, which was on the advisory board for the report, claims that this led to an inflated figure for the number of nappies the average child uses, and hence the ecological footprint of cotton nappies.

In any case, no-one would dispute that cotton nappies produce less landfill. So while the government chose not to renew funding for a three-year programme that would reduce disposable nappy use, local authorities in London, who are under particular pressure for landfill space, are still promoting cotton nappy use.

Cotton nappies are generally produced by smaller companies, and promoted by voluntary groups, while disposables are produced by well-resourced global corporations. And the Environment Agency doesn't offer financial help to contributors.

'Unless we are able to get people to cover their expenses, then we aren't able to compete. This process is incredibly time consuming, as the other side challenges everything.'
Liz Sutton, Communications Co-ordinator of WEN

As a result, nappy proponents say they found it hard to get their voice heard in the lengthy process of drawing up a report like the environment agency's lifecycle report.

"It is a bit of a David and Goliath situation," says Liz Sutton, Communications Co-ordinator of WEN.

"Unless we are able to get people to cover their expenses, then we aren't able to compete. This process is incredibly time consuming, as the other side challenges everything."

Nonetheless, the disposables industry defends the report's findings, and rejects the idea that they were able to disproportionately influence its findings.

A spokesperson for the Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association said: "The LCA was owned and commissioned by the Environment Agency, it was a robust scientific study conducted to ISO standards and was peer reviewed.

"The disposable nappy industry was able to provide accurate data on its products and every endeavour was made by the environmental consultancy running the research, and indeed the project board members, to support the cloth nappy industry to enable them to meet the requirements and aims of the study."

In any case, the Environment Agency is now working on a new version of the report, reviewing the original findings and looking at the impact of some of the 'best practice scenarios' for nappies - in other words, washing them at 60 degrees and not tumble drying or ironing.

FactCheck rating: 4

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Every time a FactCheck article is published we'll give it a rating from zero to five.

The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largerly checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.


Proponents of disposables and the anti-PC lobby have jumped on the results of the Environment Agency Survey to trash cotton nappies.

But on balance the evidence suggests that cotton nappies washed at lower temperatures do represent the least damaging option, though the difference may only be small.

But the significance of this report may well go beyond the world of babies and their effluvia. As society tries to be greener, it will increasingly face extremely complex choices like this one.

Government and consumers will be looking at more and more of these life cycle assessments, and they need to know that the results are reliable and impartial.

But if smaller groups say they're struggling to get their voices heard, will life cycle assessments just end up reflecting the views of those with money to influence them?

The sources

Environment Agency's report
Hansard, 29 Jun 2007

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