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Empowering Our Communities To Redesign

Reusable nappies, a Zero Waste solution to an European problem

We all use or have used nappies in a time of our life. Nappies are a fairly recent invention that has eased the workload to many generations of parents –specially mothers-. Consequently, nappies are here to stay. The question is how to make its production, transport, use, re-use and disposal sustainable? What kind of nappies are suitable for a society that aims to phase out waste?

Why are single-use disposable nappies a problem?

Ca 4000 to 5000 nappies are used per child until its 3rd year of age, which equals 1tn of waste per child. Seniors also use nappies and hence generate vast amounts of highly putrescible waste. In fact, even though nappies represent only between 1 and 2% of total municipal solid waste, in the places with highest separate collection rates they represent almost the biggest fraction left in the residual waste. For instance, in Capannori , the first Zero Waste municipality in Italy , nappies represent almost 15% of the waste fraction that can’t be recycled or composted. With the increase in diversion of other waste streams and increase in the age of the Europeans that will need nappies we shall see an increase both in percentage and weight in the next years in Europe.
The problem with nappies is its high fermentability combined with the composition of the nappy –combination of plastic, cotton, creams and faeces-. This means that, firstly, disposal of the nappy in the waste bin (as mixed waste) and, secondly, forces a very frequent collection of the garbage bag -because of smells and other hazards caused by its putrescibility-.
If we could solve the problem of nappies in the waste bin it would be possible to reduce the frequency of collection which would reduce the collection and disposal costs. Moreover less nappies in landfills means less methane in the atmosphere and less impact to human health.

How to get nappies out of the waste bin?

The best way is to avoid using disposable nappies by expanding the use of reusable nappies. If we want to keep on using single-use nappies another way is to find a way to seal them so that they don’t smell and therefore can endure more time in bin. However this doesn’t solve the disposal and sustainability problems.

Another solution is to facilitate special bins/collection days for nappies so that they don’t contaminate the other waste in the bin and hence reduce the frequency of waste collection. This is done in most door-to-door collection systems.

Lastly, another option if we were to continue using the single-use disposable nappies would be to produce nappies with compostable bio-plastic. This does seem a solution at first hand for our busy societies. However, studies have shown high levels of zinc present in the compost, which originate from hand-creams and other additives used to avoid nappy rash. Toxins in compost speak against the option of compostable nappies.

The advantages of reusable nappies

Reusable cloth nappies have many advantages:
– they save money for the user (from 1000€ to 2000€ per baby) and to the community (less putrescible waste = possibility to reduce the frequency of collection = lower collection costs and odours). Moreover, these nappies can be re-used when the baby has grown up, meaning that they could be sold, passed on to the next child or friends/relatives!

It is also important to note that single-use nappies externalise the costs of collection and treatment to the public administration and hence to the consumer. In other words, the price of single-use nappies in the supermarket doesn’t include the costs for the society and the environment once the product leaves the shop. In the end we all end up paying for it when the company, following the polluter pays principle, should be the one shouldering these costs. If these costs would be internalised in the price the economic advantage for reusable nappies would be even bigger.

– reduces the environmental impact: 1000kg of non-recyclable waste is prevented during 3 years. Plus the production and use of reusable nappies use less than half the water, need only one eigth of non-renewable and 90% less of renewable materials, use one third of the energy and the use of soil is from 4 to 30 times less intensive.

– reduce chemical exposure for the baby: the cellulose that touches the baby’s skin is produced and bleached with chemical products that are in contact 24h with the skin which favours the occurrence of hypersensitivity.

– helps de local economy – in many cases the reusable diapers are produced locally by the community in contrast with the industrial production of single-use nappies. For instance in Capannori, Italy, local women are working from home to produce the nappies of the company. A similar case we find in Reus, Spain.

In Europe there are several good experiences of implementation of reusable nappies:

– In Flanders, Belgium, the administration co-finances the purchase of reusable cloth nappies,


– In the UK a waste minimisation campaign (The Real Nappy Campaign) was very successful in bringing this issue closer to the people. 80% of municipalities in the UK support the use of reusable nappies and effective service of nappy laundry is in place,
– in Austria 10 to 15% of the people confirm the use of reusable nappies,
– in Italy the use of reusable nappies is widespread in those communities adhering to Zero Waste,
– In Catalonia, Spain, there has been several tests to introduce reusable nappies in kindergartens which have proven to be a saving for the school –decrease in nappies use of 37% and reduction of 147kg/year per baby- and a way to promote reusable nappies among parents –many of whom decide to adopt the system at home-


It is estimated that in Europe 20% of the population uses reusable nappies -15% for economy and 5% because of environmental reasons-. The use is uneven between EU countries, some with high percentages and some with very low. What is clear is that this is a growing trend and we are going to see more of these if we are to advance towards sustainability. From the waste point of view, replacing single-use nappies with reusable nappies is the way to go if we want to reach a Zero Waste society.

Puma – towards Zero Waste?

The shoe producer Puma in cooperation with the FuseProject has set itself in the path to minimise waste and is today a reference for other companies on greening production. As Puma says in a good understanding of waste hierarchy; they make better use of boxes by not using them.

After 21 months of studying diferent options to reduce the environmental impact, minimise the use of boxes, diminish shipping costs and hence reduce waste, and after 2000 ideas and 40 prototypes Puma concluded that the best solution was not to use a box and instead use a 100% cornstarch fully biodegradable bag.

The “clever bag solution” represents a 65% reduction in the use of cardboard which means saving 8500 tones of paper,20.000 milion megajoules of electricity, 1 milion liters of fuel, oil and 500.000 liters of diesel, 1 milion liters of water and reducing CO2 emissions in 10.000 tones.

On the top of that Puma has phased-out always dangerous PVC from its shoe soles and is producing smaller handtags which also reduces paper use.

The reduction of waste in Puma has brought not only less environmental impact. It has also reduced the costs, raised the green credentials of the company which will make it more appealing to new costumers. A good example of how Zero Waste is not only possible but also highly recommendable corporate strategy!

Shortsighted EU policy on raw materials delays getting to Zero Waste

The EU is the region most dependent on foreign imports of raw materials in the world. Hence there is a genuine interest in reducing this dependency. But, are the current policies apropriate to create a close loop society in the EU? How can the Zero Waste concept contribute to this aim?

The high EU dependency on raw materials pushed the the European Commission (2008) to launch a major new strategy, the Raw Materials Initiative (RMI). It consisted of three pillars:

1-      securing access to raw materials on world markets,

2-      fostering the supply of raw materials from European sources

3-      and reducing the EU’s own consumption of primary raw materials.

During this year the European Parliament has been working on the new RMI under lots of pressure from the industry. From the Zero Waste point of view, that would like to see all the materials entering the Union being reintroduced into the production cycle over and over (craddle-to-craddle approach), we see the policy of the EU regarding this RMI being rather shortsighted. The new RMI puts all the energy on pillars one and two, on using diplomatic and less-diplomatic means to obtain raw materials in a way that very often undermines the capacity of the global south to develop its own industry . As it stands right now the main driver of the RMI is free-trade with all its consequences, unfortunately the text contains no real means to reduce consumption of these raw materials in the EU (the EU consumes 3 times more materials than Asia and 4 times more than Africa) and no means to close the material gap that would allow the EU to increase its sustainability.

In other words, in the RMI there is almost no reference to recycling as a way to recover materials. Despite the usual nice rethoric about sustainability and the EU becoming a “recycling society” the current policy continues to be to import materials, use them to the full and let the poor and the other parts of the world deal with the waste. In the current RMI  there are neither targets nor aims to measure the material flows from and to the EU. Without knowing what comes in and what comes out it is impossible to consider recycling targets as a way to recover these materials and hence reduce this dependency from abroad.

Oxfam and Traidcraft produced a good analysis of the RMI in which they rightly argue that the first priority for the EU should be to reduce its consumption of resources and move towards a low-resource economic model. This is exactly what a Zero Waste model would be; make waste disappear by making it possible to materially recover all the materials that enter the EU.

Times have changed and pursuing old-fashioned strategies based on resource extraction and peer-pressure to empoverished countries will not work anymore. Although ‘resource intensity’ (the amount of raw materials needed to produce growth) is declining globally, the absolute amount of natural resources extracted every year is increasing due to economic growth – the world extracts around 50 per cent more natural resources now than in 1980. This means that more scarce resources will get more expensive and unreachable and trying to close the loop only makes sense. Any EU policy on materials and resources that doesn’t include maximising material recovery and resource efficiency is compromising the economic future of the Union. The vote in the European Parliament’s Industry Committee against resource efficiency targets is a worrying sign that can hijack the future of the EU resource efficiency strategy.

The RMI should focus a lot more on material productivity and on how to recover the materials that are already in the EU and which will end up dumped, burned or exported. A Zero Waste strategy would allow to recover these materials. In fact, most Zero Waste municipalities in Europe almost don’t send any of these precious materials to disposal.