Consuming Issues: We can throw out the great nappy debate

When a new baby arrives, they deliver more than joy and sleepless nights, they also bring increasingly large volumes of wee and poo. One of the dilemmas that greets a parent is whether to buy disposable or cloth nappies.

For years the Government, local authorities and green campaigners promoted re-usable cloth nappies. Washable ones were officially "a good thing" because of the problems caused by the disposing of disposables, which occupy between 2 and 3 per cent of landfill.

A saving of £500 per child could be had by buying cloth nappies, according to the Women's Environmental Network (WEN).

Despite the arguments, 95 per cent of parents opted for disposables, presumably because of their convenience; buy, wear, chuck into the bin. Many, though, had a nagging sense of shame about the mass of nappies being dumped in the ground. Until four years ago when a bombshell shattered the arguments for "green" nappies.

A £200,000 lifecycle assessment by the Environment Agency found there was little difference environmentally between disposals and re-usables. Experts analysed production, transportation, washing and disposal – and found that while producing disposables was resource-intensive, so was powering washing machines to launder re-usables. The 200-page report concluded there was "no significant difference between any of the environmental impacts".

Cynics smugly suggested that eco do-gooders were wasting their time. Campaigners were furious. They disputed the calculations about the efficiency of washing machines, wash temperature and the assumption some nappies would be ironed. WEN condemned the study as a "wasted opportunity" to tilt the debate in favour of re-usables once and for all.

Some detected the hand of the nappy companies Procter & Gamble (Pampers) and Kimberley Clark (Huggies) in the assumptions behind the calculations.

Stung by the criticism, the Environment Agency commissioned a follow-up report. The "updated lifecycle assessment" was slipped quietly onto the Agency's website in October without a press release. It found the average global warming impact for disposables was 550kg and for re-usables 570kg; again, hardly any difference.

However, for the first time the Agency acknowledged that 'eco' cloth nappies could be much greener, depending on how they were used. Placing cloth nappies in a full load, drying them outdoors and re-using them on a second child would cut their global warming impact by 40 per cent – 342kg compared with 550kg for disposables. On the other hand, washing nappies at 90C rather than 60C would cause 31 per cent more damage.

Usage was key. The report concluded: "The environmental impacts of using shaped reusable nappies can be higher or lower than using disposables, depending on how they are laundered."

The green groups were right, though, after all; carefully used re-usables do help the environment. But how much of a difference do they make? The maximum saving per child calculated by the Environment Agency is 208kg of carbon.

According to the offsetting company Climate Care, a return flight from London to Barcelona generates 260kg. And this gets to the nub of the issue; some of our lifestyle choices have a big impact.

The annual carbon footprint of the average Briton is just under 11 tons of CO2. Leisure and recreation – watching a football match or driving to the seaside – account for a fifth of this.

Walking, rather than taking the car, for a trip of under three miles saves 2kg. Not using a tumble drier saves 36kg a year. Mobile phone chargers emit between 35 and 70kg per person a year.

After five years we have finally got to the bottom of the great nappy debate: anyone using cloth nappies is doing their bit for the environment. But the difference is not so great compared with other more destructive lifestyle choices, like flying. You could make up for your nappies by staying at home one weekend.

Heroes & Villians

Hero: The EcoCamel shower head. By aerating water, it saves up to 60 per cent of hot water, thereby heating and water meter bills, and lowering your carbon footprint. The manufacturers estimate a family of four could save £240 a year if they’re on a water meter. It costs £25.

Villain: The power companies who have squeezed an extra £464m out of pre-payment customers in the past three years would be a strong candidate, normally. But this week there can only be one villain: me. I did not mention last week that an extra 100ml of tepid water should be added to the flour to make a dough. Though not essential, you should also add two teaspoons of sugar to the yeast. Doing these will make a better loaf. My apologies.

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