The unfortunate truth about “eco” nappies (and what you can do about it)

The biodegradable nappy myth

With my wife and I expecting our first baby in the coming weeks, two things made me think it was important to look into reusable nappies.

1. By the time they are potty trained, a baby will have used 4,000 to 6,000 disposable nappies.

2. A “biodegradable” nappy – one that’s not made from plastic – that ends up in landfill is worse for climate change than a disposable nappy.

The first point is unsurprising and even more startling at a national level. An estimated 3 billion nappies are thrown away each year in the UK, accounting for 2-3% of all household waste.

The second point is counter-intuitive and probably requires more explanation. A biodegradable nappy will only biodegrade as intended if it ends up in either a large, well-managed personal compost heap or a council food / garden waste commercial composter. Less than 50% of UK households have such a collection and many simply do not have the space for their own compost heap. So for the majority of babies in the UK their biodegradable nappies will end up in landfill or being burnt. 

And here’s the crux: in a covered and compressed landfill site, biodegradable nappies (and their contents) will decompose anaerobically, releasing methane – which is around 34 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A normal disposable nappy made out of plastic will actually produce fewer harmful emissions.

As for reusable nappies – made to wash and use again – it’s true that it does take more energy to put them through the washing machine than to throw disposables in the bin. However, there are a number of ways to minimise this. The days of boil-washing are gone, as modern reusables can be washed at 60 or even 40 degrees. If drying space is an issue for you, then there are many brands which dry fast without a tumble-dryer. And to top it all off, you can sign-up for 100% renewable electricity for your home, meaning that the energy you are using will be coming from green sources in any case.

The reusable nappy revolution

So, that set me off on a journey to discover if there was a realistic alternative to disposables. What I found was actually pretty encouraging. 

This blog is not meant to be preachy or naive and I’m acutely aware that it is written before the realities of having a newborn baby have hit. It is simply intended to help those who, like I did, feel uncomfortable about throwing away 1000s of nappies and want to explore what alternatives are out there…

Oh, and one other word of warning. If you are the eco-warrior in the household then please be sensitive to your partner in any nappy discussions, particularly if they are going to be the one at home with the baby and thus doing the majority of the changing. Whatever solution you come up with, it needs to work for you both.

Now, be honest, when you think of a reusable nappy does your mind conjure up something that looks a bit like this…?

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It certainly did for me. But the good news is that a modern reusable nappy actually looks like this…

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Indeed, they are now so snazzy that there is now a “cloth bumming” trend (yes, that is really what it’s called…) taking Instagram by storm!

So, now that you can see how reusable nappies will make your baby the envy of the creche, how do you go about finding the right ones?

There’s no right answer, but here’s what worked well for us…

Firstly, we used this excellent questionnaire on The Nappy Lady website. It asks you a wide range of questions and then gives you two recommendations. For us, ensuring that they would be simple to use and dry quickly in our small flat (with very limited outdoor space) were the two biggest priorities. 

Secondly, some of your friends and family with babies will already be using reusable nappies. Ask them which have worked best for them.  This gave us a shortlist of half a dozen reusable nappies and – using the The Nappy Lady’s reviews – we picked those that might be best for us. 

“Might” is an important word here. There are wise warnings about reusables not working for all newborns, so you will want to make sure that the brand you have chosen is a good fit. What you don’t want to do is buy loads in advance and then not be able to use them (though I hear there is a thriving second-hand market in reusable nappies too…). This is easy to get around: many brands have trial packs, or you can buy a few and use them alongside disposable nappies in the first few weeks until you are confident they are a good match for your baby.

Why not throw in some cheeky wipes?

A quick note on baby wipes. While not such a big issue from a climate change perspective, the UK has woken up to the damage that wet wipes are doing to our sewers and our seas. There’s even a suggestion that the UK Government could ban them.

Lucky enough, this is an easy one to do something about.

One option is flushable wipes, with businesses scrambling to make their offerings better for the world. 

A more sustainable option still are Cheeky Wipes, the worst kept secret in baby class circles where I have been spending a lot of time recently. Parents across the UK swear by them, as being better for your baby and cheaper in the long run.

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I hope this has given you a good head start in your quest to throw away fewer nappies. I’ll report back on how we are getting on in a few months…

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The UK’s First Plastic-Free Coffee Packaging – The Inside Story

Last week, Percol announced they were launching the UK’s first plastic-free coffee packaging, aiming to stop 1.3 million pieces of plastic ending up in landfill each year. Was it difficult to achieve? Is it good for business? What advice would they give to other trail-blazers who want to do the same? I had a coffee with Ollie Richmond, their Trade & NPD Manager, to percolate on some of these questions…

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Q. What’s the history of Percol Coffee?

Percol is a brand with a great story. We are proud to have been pioneering ethics and sustainability since we started back in 1987. We were the first ground coffee to earn the Fairtrade mark and the first to offer organic arabica. We’ve got a long history of making sure the people and environments that grow our coffee are supported, respected and protected. We’re now proud to launch the world’s first plastic-free packaging for ground coffee and beans.  

Q. How much plastic waste do coffee drinkers produce?

The takeaway coffee market has received a lot of negative press recently over the amount of non-recyclable waste it creates, and rightly so. People in the UK throw away 2.5 billion coffee cups a year, of which less than 1% get recycled! So, how is the coffee industry responding to an ever increasing drive to be sustainable, not only in coffee shops but in consumers’ kitchens? 

Over 100 million non-recyclable coffee packs are produced and used each year – you’ll notice the ‘not yet widely recycled’ OPRL symbol on the back of ground or beans coffee packs. As a UK retail coffee brand which sells more than 4 million products a year in supermarkets, we have an important role to play in reducing the impact we are making on the planet, and providing customers with more sustainable choices – without compromising on taste, quality or our ethical sourcing.

Q. Why is Percol Coffee going plastic-free now? Does it make business sense?

Like many, we want to do more to reduce the amount of packaging (and particularly plastic) that we’re using. So we’ve looked at all our products and have taken bold steps to find sustainable packaging alternatives, starting with our ground and beans. Ultimately our aim is to give customers a plastic-free option.

Being the first has meant taking risks and the new plastic-free ground and beans packaging is significantly more expensive than what we used previously. However, we were passionate that this was the right decision to take in order to reduce our impact on the planet.

Q. What were the biggest challenges to going plastic-free? What advice would you give to others who want to do the same?

There is no silver bullet. There will always be pros and cons to any alternative solution so it’s important to understand these and make an informed decision that you think is right for your business. The best solution to one type of packaging issue may not necessarily be the same for another. With that in mind, technology and innovation are constantly improving the options available – we’ve made a decision which we think is best at this point in time but we’re open to change if a better solution comes on to the market.

Q. Did you consider a circular economy model, where packaging could be returned to you and reused?

Our new plastic-free ground and beans packaging is certified home compostable. This means the customer can throw it in their local council food waste bin where it will be industrially composted and break down in 12 weeks. Alternatively, in their home compost bin it will break down in 26 weeks.  

We feel this is the best alternative to the multi-layer, non-recyclable plastic packs on the market. Composting is nature’s circular economy and compostable packaging, when organically recycled, is a true cradle to cradle solution. Our packaging – once broken down – can be used as a soil improver.

Q. What about all the people who don’t have food waste bins? What happens to your packaging if it ends up in landfill?

We would always strongly encourage our customers to put our new home compostable packaging in their local council food bin or home compost bin. If neither are available, we’d encourage you to speak to your local council about having a food waste bin put in place for your home. The UK sent 7.7million tonnes of Biodegradable Municipal Waste (BMW) to landfill in 2016* – this could be avoided through increased food waste collection.

If our home compostable packaging is put in your regular refuse bin, it will go through the local waste system where it’s likely to enter a landfill or an anaerobic digester. If landfilled, the packaging will act like organic waste – such as a banana peel – which may slowly break down but is likely to remain inert due to the lack of oxygen and moisture required to start bio-degradation. 

Q. Is the aim to differentiate Percol from its competitors, or would you like them to follow your lead?

By being the first in the market to launch compostable packaging, we expect this will differentiate us from our competitors. However, we hope others will ultimately follow or innovate in this area. We would encourage others in the coffee industry to be brave and invest in sustainable packaging solutions.

Q. How much plastic will this change save?

This move will strip out over 1.3 million pieces of plastic from our business, which equates to 2-3 tonnes of plastic a year. 

*(UK Statistics on Waste Statistical Notice October 2018)

Work Photo

 

 

Thanks to Ollie for answering all my questions!

Five plastic-free changes that have stood the test of time

My wife Sarah and I were inspired to give the Marine Conservation Society’s Plastic-Free July challenge a go. Instead of trying to drive every last piece of plastic from our lives, we focused on making a few lifestyle changes that might stand the test of time.

Here’s what is still working for us three months later…

1. Wonky veg

BsQ9RF6lQBSb4MjR6Eu52QCrazy that all of this is “too wonky” to be sold in supermarkets!

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