#34: Are eco nappies really eco friendly?

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Sustainability guru and Cloth Baby founder, Emma, recently shared her thoughts on the rise of eco-disposable nappies and whether consumers are being misled about their environmental impact. Labels such as eco, degradable, biodegradable and compostable, she says, grab onto our heart strings and make us feel like we’re doing the right thing. We sat down with Emma to find out what actually happens to products that end up in landfill and whether eco-disposable nappy products are the right choice for you.

Welcome, Emma @clothbabynappies

Before we begin, can you tell us a little about yourself, Cloth Baby and your passion for finding easy solutions to avoiding waste?

I started Cloth Baby to help parents choose and use cloth nappies successfully, avoiding waste and saving parents money. My aim is to make the whole process a lot easier, so whatever the reason you choose to use cloth nappies – style, convenience, cost, zero waste, making each step just that bit easier will help you get there in the end.  

There are so many words used to describe ‘eco’ products. Can you tell us if there is any real difference between words such as eco, biodegradable and compostable or if it is all just marketing hype?

When considering eco products, you can look at a.) what it is made from b.) how it is used and c.) what it’s end of life impact is.  Compostable, biodegradable and eco can all take on different meanings, however, it is where the product ends up and how it is processed is what matters.  

An eco product can be something that is made from fully or partially recycled material, something that is sustainably sourced or something that has been repurposed. A compostable product will either compost in a home compost bin or an industrial composting facility. A biodegradable product is made out of bio or plant-based products and will biodegrade in the correct conditions. If a plastic product is bio or plant based, it means that it was made from plant materials but doesn’t necessarily mean it will be biodegradable or compostable. A ‘bioplastic’ could mean that it is biodegradable/compostable or that it made from plant materials. However, it does not mean that it can do both. 

Pretty confusing, right?!   

It is commonly quoted that it takes about 500 years for a regular disposable nappy to break down in landfill, how long would it take for an eco nappy to decompose?

A standard disposable nappy will contain around a third of ‘fluff’ made from wood pulp, a third is super absorbent polymers (SAPs) which absorb liquid and a third of non-biodegradable plastics which make up the many layers, elastics and closure tags. 

Eco disposable nappies claim to contain 50-70% biodegradable or plant-based material within a nappy. Therefore, more of the nappy can break down which is claimed to be around 2 years. There is still non-biodegradable plastic for the closure tags and elastics which will most likely not break down. 

For a compostable material to ‘break down’ ie. biodegrade or compost, it requires oxygen and heat. In landfills, there is no oxygen and heat in the compressed layers of rubbish. When an item goes through the process of breaking down in landfill, it will produce methane (21 times more potent than CO2) and leachate (contaminated water runoff). In the depths of a landfill, there is no oxygen to help with any breakdown process so the product may essentially rot, especially products which have a higher organic or compostable content plus human waste. 

So, in actual fact, items which break down in landfills contribute to more emissions and environmental issues. 

Even if compostable waste is disposed of properly and makes it to an industrial facility, you write that it still might end up in landfill. Can you tell us more about how and why this occurs? How can we find out if our waste will make it to an industrial composting system, and if it will be composted once it gets there?

Unless there is a dedicated reprocessing stream which is compatible with the chosen product/packaging, it will eventually make its way to landfill. Manual sorters need to make sure that unwanted products don’t end up within the compost heap. All the material is shredded before the composting process begins. If plastic is present, these will become macro or micro and contaminate the compost.  

The best thing to do is check with your local council on what compostable products are accepted for kerbside bin food organics/garden organics collections. 

Even compostable or biodegradable products that become litter may not break down and still present as litter as the conditions need to be right for correct processing.   

Compostable and biodegradable products also present as a contaminant within the recycling system as they do not contain enough recyclable material to be turned into recycled product. 

It seems it’s crucial to know the difference between home and industrial compost systems, and which system is needed to properly dispose of eco disposables? How can we identify which system we need access to, and whether our home compost systems are adequate for disposing of eco nappies?

A compostable product that will compost in a home compost bin should show a compost bin logo or a leaf logo with a certification number somewhere on the packaging. If a product is certified AS5810 this means that the product has been tested to actually compost and break down in a home compost system. Generally, this will take at least 6 months to happen.

If a product is certified AS4736, it will biodegrade or compost in an industrial compost facility, where heat and oxygen is regulated. 

Similar composting and biodegradable standards are current in USA with products certified with ASTM D6400 and in Europe with EN13432.

There is only one brand of compostable nappy in Australia – Eenee Nappies. You can home compost these (see next question) or there are only two councils in Australia which accept this brand of nappy: Hobart City Council in Tasmania and Shire of Augusta Margaret River in WA.  

Are there any eco-disposable nappies on the market in Australia that can be composted in a home system?

Eenee Nappies can be home composted. These nappies are an insert into a waterproof cover, rather than a complete nappy. Only the insert gets composted and the outer cover is reused. 

You also mention that only wee nappies can be disposed of in a home compost system due to pathogen risk. Can you tell us more about this? 

Only the Eenee Nappies (wet wee nappies, not soiled nappies) can be home composted. The reason for not composting soiled nappies at home is that in a small compost bin it can be difficult to achieve enough heat, oxygen and correct microorganisms to ensure everything breaks down. There is a pathogen risk with human solid waste.  Also note, if you are composting only wee nappies, this could be around 5 – 10 per day which would add up quickly over time (does your home compost bin set up have enough space for 35 nappies in one week or 140 in one month?) 

Are you aware of any eco-disposable brands elsewhere in the world that are making gains in terms of sustainability?

In New Zealand, Little and Brave supply fully compostable nappies, plus provide collection services to then take the compostable nappies and process them in their own facility. 

In the USA, Europe and the UK, G Diapers/G Nappies are another compostable nappy option on the market. 

Will cloth nappies compost?
Does your home compost bin set up have enough space for 35 nappies in one week?

On your blog, you share a quote from Annie Leonard from the film ‘The Story of Stuff’, “There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw away something, it must go somewhere.” It’s such a powerful quote. How does it make you feel when products claim to be eco friendly but ultimately won’t be disposed of in a way that will make them better for the Earth?

It can be very misleading for the consumer who wants to and believes they are doing the right thing.  As you have just learnt, there is a lot to know about eco, compostable and biodegradable so it can get confusing and complex. If something is advertised to us as an easy eco win, we are probably more likely to sign up for it.  

What worries you most about the information sharing that occurs around parenting products that are sold as environmentally friendly?

Again, it worries me that information is misleading. And for new parents who are new to everything baby, this can often result in unnecessary money spent for items that are not environmentally friendly. 

In your opinion, are eco-disposable nappies better than regular disposable nappies?

Eco disposable nappies which you can buy from the supermarket do not have as many super absorbent polymers as regular disposables and may need to be changed more frequently. In the end, you may end up having to use more nappies, creating more waste and costing you more. 

Again, because these eco-disposables aren’t being composted, these are still heading to landfill and items that break down in landfill will cause emissions. 

If compostable Eenee Nappies are used and either composted or sent to the mentioned compost facilities then this is a win for the environment and the circular economy! 

How do you think product packaging should reflect the eco friendliness of an item?

The organisation Ekko are developing an Ekko Score to make it easier for consumers to understand how eco a product or service really is. The scoring is based on 3 areas: 1. How a product is made 2. How it works 3. How it dies. The scoring takes into account all of this information to make it easy for us to make an informed decision. See more at https://ekko.world/Default.aspx 

Just like we have the heart star rating on foods to better inform us of a healthier option, the Ekko Score can help better inform us of a more eco product.  

What do you think needs to happen for parents to be better supported to make the right choices when it comes to environmentally friendly products? 

More education for waste should be provided from local councils. In Australia, your local council is the one who manages the landfill or essentially pays to take your waste there. You pay council rates for a waste collection service from your home. Local council can play a part in making sure that parents understand their waste streams, especially when bringing another human into the world

What would you like the future of the eco-disposable nappy market to look like?

The ideal situation would be a completely compostable nappy which is collected in a single waste stream (separate bin) headed to a composting facility. You would need to ensure that all users of this bin are using only a compatible nappy. 

What future do you hope for the nappy market as a whole?

In an ideal world, consumption should work in a circular economy rather than a linear economy. A circular economy is where resources and products are repurposed or recycled into new products rather than taking more things to make more stuff, only to have them sitting in landfills. It will take a lot of change from the big nappy companies to create circularity and it will also take change by government policy to ensure corporations comply. 

About the author

Emma Avery is the owner and founder of Cloth Baby – modern cloth nappies.  As a mother of two, she has spent the time to test and trail a variety of cloth nappies, now passing on her insights and learnings so that other parents can use cloth nappies easily and successfully. 

After years of spruiking sustainability messages in local and state government roles, she saw a gap in the conversation about modern cloth nappies.  Emma helps parents who want to reduce their waste impact on the planet and make the switch to reusables during their transition to parenthood.

A bin nerd at heart, Emma is a guru in all aspects of sustainability. With a degree in environmental management, she continues to communicate the sustainable living message through podcast interviews, local radio shows, guest blogging and her blog writing on clothbaby.com.au

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