No room at the bin

14 December 2018

With Christmas fast approaching, and residual waste collections rearranged over the festive season, many parents are facing the challenge of how to deal with the waste produced by their children’s ‘disposable’ nappies. Kirstie Clarke, Real Nappy Outreach Worker in Gloucestershire, considers what options there are when there is no room at the bin.

With up to 12 nappy changes a day for a newborn, you might be looking at a grand total of 84 nappies a week. This will fill a whole bin liner, taking up at least half the capacity of a standard wheelie bin. As babies grow, they might need fewer changes but not to the extent that it becomes an insignificant part of the household waste. With nearly three billion disposable nappies sold annually in the UK, it is estimated that used nappy waste amounts to 500,000 tonnes per year. That really doesn’t leave much space in the bin for anything else! There has been much in the media recently about single-use plastics, often focusing on coffee cups, and drinking straws, but disposable nappies seem to have been overlooked so far. If these nappies are considered “single-use” rather than “disposable”, their impact on the environment starts to come into focus. While many are unaware that alternatives are available, in Gloucestershire and elsewhere in the UK, the use of washable nappies is gaining momentum. With potential financial savings of up to £1,000 per child, it is easy to see why.

Bringing this into even sharper focus is the fact that many councils are moving to two- three- or even four-weekly residual collections, such as Conwy in Wales. Savings to the Conwy Council are expected to be around £390,000 per year but the big question for those with young children in single-use nappies is, where will they put them in the interim? With over 300 nappies waiting for removal each month, that becomes a stinky sticking point.

Among reasons given for the move to four-weekly collections, Conwy has said that residents will be encouraged to recycle more of their waste, in a bid to achieve the European Union’s 50% recycling targets for 2020. However, disposable nappies are not that straightforward to recycle – the processes involved in stripping used nappies of their constituent parts for commercial applications is an expensive one. It also involves the need to collect them separately at the kerbside, which means more expense. The debate then turns to who should pay for this separate collection – councils or parents.

Some local authorities are introducing a nappy bin collection service which is paid for separately, as is Garden Waste in many areas. Dorset currently charges £14 for a supply of additional refuse bags to households with children under 3. Understandably, this causes controversy amongst many parents who feel they are being penalised.

If more parents were aware of the environmental and financial savings that can be achieved through reusable nappies (also referred to as washable or cloth or real nappies), would they consider changing their habits?

The average annual uptake of reusable nappies in Gloucestershire is currently 5% of new babies born in the county. Awareness raising is carried out by two outreach workers who promote a £30-off incentive scheme and demonstrate different types of nappies to parents. They also work with midwives and maternity hospitals, successfully helping them to understand the benefits.

Gloucestershire County Council plans to move away from landfill to a new “Energy From Waste” facility in 2019, but remains committed to helping its residents reduce their residual waste. Evidence of this shows in their ten-year commitment to funding their Real Nappy Project which is managed by Resource Futures.

Over the Christmas period, many extra bags of festive rubbish will be sent to landfill by each household. Add single-use nappies to this, and things are not looking pretty.

Wheelie bins around the country could be getting an easier ride this Christmas if families choose to reuse instead of dispose. For those wondering what to get their loved ones for Christmas, a cloth nappy bundle could be the answer.