Reusable nappies and how they can address Scotland’s single-use plastic challenge

22 Apr 2021

A guest blog by Guy Schanschieff, chair of the Nappy Alliance

As a society, we are slowly coming to terms with the fact that there are consequences to throwing something away. Every single bit of waste produced has to go somewhere.

The scale of single-use plastic waste is unmanageable. Globally, we produce approximately 300 million tonnes of plastics waste each year. Of this waste, only 9 percent is recycled, 12 percent incinerated whilst the rest accumulates in landfills, dumps or the natural environment.

There is a fundamental flaw in our approach to managing waste – and it starts with the fact that we need to look beyond recycling. The waste hierarchy has been around for years, and although prevention, material reduction and reuse are important and seen as the ‘gold standard’, too much effort has been dedicated to recycling unnecessary single-use plastics rather than tackling the heart of the issue.

In recent years, steps have been taken to tackle single-use plastics, for example through the introduction of legislation restricting the supply of plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers, as well as reducing the use of single-use carrier bags through a charge..

Government and local authorities must make it a priority to tackle sources of unnecessary single-use plastics waste, starting at the point of production and encouraging prevention and reusable alternatives wherever possible.

For example, although plastic bags and straws have been in the spotlight, single-use (or “disposable”) nappies also cause significant and widescale impact on the environment. Single-use nappies require huge quantities of raw materials and contribute to climate change.  On average each nappy generates around 550kg of CO2 y throughout its lifecycle. From birth to potty, single-use nappies have been found to use the equivalent of 15,000 plastic bags and around half a tree in fluff pulp per child.

On the other hand, the environmental benefits of reusable nappies are becoming clearer. They use 98 percent fewer raw materials and generate 99 percent less waste, can help to save the equivalent of 17 plastic bags per day, or over 6,000 per year per child from being landfilled or incinerated. They also deliver significant financial savings of over £1,000 for parents which increases if they are used on subsequent children or purchased on the thriving second-hand market. 

The 2021 UNEP report: Addressing single-use plastic products pollution; using a life cycle approach found that  reusable nappies had lower environmental impacts across almost all trial scenarios when compared to single-use nappies. The UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will also be publishing a new Life Cycle Assessment of reusable versus single-use nappies in the coming weeks. We hope that the findings will further demonstrate the progress of reusables, and their environmental and health benefits in comparison to single-use nappies.

For these reasons, we believe the Scottish government should be considering new ways to reduce the reliance on single-use nappies by 2025  – building on the very welcome inclusion of a reusable nappy voucher in Scotland’s national baby box scheme. This would also support Scotland’s ambition to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 at the latest, carbon neutrality by 2040, and contribute to the 2045 NHS Scotland net zero pledge.

Attitudes towards the environment have shifted during the pandemic, with a YouGov survey in October 2020 demonstrating that almost four fifths of Scots are concerned about the volume of single-use items and packaging used across the country. In the run-up to COP26, promoting reusable nappies is a way for the Scottish government to show leadership on an important but often overlooked source of unnecessary single-use plastic waste.

One approach to promote reusable nappies would be to roll out a national reusable nappy incentive scheme that can be administered via local councils. Reusable nappy schemes can come in various forms, including trial packs, reimbursement schemes, voucher schemes, nappy libraries, and educational events/materials. They typically seek to provide information and reduce the upfront costs for families.  There is a thriving second-hand market for reusables too, and many parents decide to use the reusable nappies for subsequent children.

Existing reusable nappy schemes, such as Edinburgh and North Ayrshire’s Real Nappies starter kits, have been successful in helping reduce single-use plastics waste in Scotland. By promoting reusable nappies through a nationally devised scheme, forming a joined-up approach across local authorities, and providing the resources they need to reach their potential, Scotland would be taking a substantial step towards meeting its ambitious environmental targets.

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