From: Michael McDonough, Associated Press
Published May 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Disposable and Reusable Diapers Have Same Environmental Impact

LONDON — Disposable diapers, most of which end up in landfill sites in Britain, have the same environmental impact as reusable diapers, when the effect of laundering the cotton version is taken into account, Britain's environmental watchdog said Thursday.


Makers of disposable diapers -- known as nappies in Britain -- welcomed the findings published by the Environment Agency, saying parents should no longer feel guilty about using their products.


But advocates of reusable diapers, who have built up a fledgling network of cotton nappy users in recent years, including laundry services that collect dirty diapers and provide clean ones, said the study was flawed.


The Environment Agency said an independent consultant carried out a three-year study that assessed all the environmental impacts of the two kinds of diaper. That included the raw materials used to make them -- down to the crude oil from which chemicals are extracted to produce disposable diapers -- as well as transport costs, means of use and disposal, and the energy required throughout the life cycle of the diaper.


The study found there was "no substantial difference between the environmental impacts" of using disposable and reusable diapers, said Tricia Henton, director of environmental protection at the Environment Agency.


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The agency said disposable diapers accounted for 2.5 percent of Britain's annual household waste. British parents bought some 2.5 billion disposable diapers in 2001, and most of them ended up in landfill sites. They held a 94 percent share of the British diaper market in 1999.


"We hope manufacturers of disposable nappies will use this study to improve the environmental performance of their products, particularly the quantities going to landfill," Henton said.


The Environment Agency said the main impact from cotton diapers came from the electricity and fuel used when washing and drying them. Henton said parents should wash them in bigger loads at lower temperatures and dry them in fresh air.


Around 675,000 children are born each year in Britain. On average they wear diapers until they are 2 years and 2 months old. Disposable diapers first appeared in Britain in the 1960s and were quickly embraced by parents as a means of reducing their laundry workload. But in recent years concerns have grown about their environmental consequences.


Tracy Stewart, director general of the Absorbent Hygiene Products Manufacturers' Association, welcomed the Environment Agency's findings.


"Parents can be thrilled by the news and no longer feel guilty about choosing disposables," she said.


Stewart acknowledged there was little alternative in Britain to disposing of the diapers in landfill sites, but she insisted that 80 percent of a used disposable diaper is biodegradable.


Green campaigners, however, sharply criticized the official study.


The Women's Environment Network said the sample size relied on for assessing the habits of cotton diaper users was too small for any solid conclusions to be drawn.


Spokeswoman Elizabeth Hartigan said parents could make a big difference by using energy efficient washing machines and laundering diapers at lower temperatures -- around 60 C.


"People who are using real nappies can save waste using them and be confident they're not harming the environment by using energy to wash them," Hartigan told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.


Responding to Hartigan's criticism, Henton said the Environment Agency would carry out further work to verify its study. She said getting a big sample of cotton diaper users was difficult as only about 5 percent of parents fitted into that category.


Source: Associated Press


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