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The Crude Truth About Disposable Diapers

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  • Bambino Mio
  • 02 / 12 / 2023


Many of the older generation saw plastics as a modern miracle when they first entered the markets in the 1940s and 1950s. It seemed that this durable and flexible new material was the answer to lots of problems.


It was easy to clean, lightweight and came in lots of attractive colors. Best of all, it was cheap and disposable - when something stopped working or broke, it was off to the dump and replaced by a shiny new version.


With plastics at humanity’s beck and call, why bother mending a broken wooden toy or rinsing and returning glass bottles to the shop when there were cheap and interchangeable plastic replacements pretty much to hand?


Nowadays, plastic isn’t so fantastic

To make plastics, we need crude oil, which is a fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are the main driver of climate change (1) and plastics, one of crude oil’s biggest derivatives, are a big reason for us to keep on pulling them out of the earth.


We “need” them for our shampoo bottles, our pens, our cellphone cases and keyboards…the list goes on and on and it also includes the disposable diapers many children wear today.


Plastics are in everything - literally

So omnipresent have plastics become, that we’re now finding microplastics (2), the tiny fragments caused by the production and the breaking down of plastic products, in our oceans and even in our lungs.


We need a new era of “Make Do and Mend”

The realization that plastics have turned out to be a potential environmental disaster has encouraged a lot of us to look for ways to reduce the amount of plastic we use every day, especially items we only use once.


We’re replacing our single-use coffee cups with reusables and many of us are turning to bamboo-handled toothbrushes, reusable wipes and glass food containers.


The UK has repair cafes (3) popping up everywhere, with people fixing appliances and furniture rather than sending them to landfill at the first sign of trouble. There is now a genuine love for items passed down or rescued from trash and restoration is a hobby for many. 


It’s safe to say that we’re coming full-circle to the days of making do and mending to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and plastics.


Disposable diapers are the elephant in the room

Well, the elephant sat atop a landfill site… It’s great that so many of us are returning to glass milk bottles, eschewing plastic straws, drinking our Americanos out of reusable cups and storing our shampoo bars in metal tins, but what about all those disposable diapers?


Let’s return to those disposable cups for a minute. In the UK, for example, people discard more than seven million single-use coffee cups daily and only 0.24% of them are recycled due to their plastic coating. Annually, the UK sends 33,000 tons of discarded coffee cup waste to landfill (4), which is 0.1% of its total waste.


In the US, single-use nappies represent 1.4% of the nation’s landfill burden. We throw away more than 4.1 million tons of disposable diapers each year (5) and once they hit landfill, they stay there and they’ll stay there for up to 500 years (6) thanks to their plastic components.


The world needs reusable diapers

Reusable coffee cups are increasingly popular but why aren’t we seeing the same rush towards reusable diapers? Reducing our use of disposable diapers would have a bigger impact than reducing our use of throwaway coffee cups, so what’s stopping us?


A lot of us, it seems, don’t know what goes into disposable diapers before we pluck them from the supermarket shelves.


The average child is in diapers for 2.5-3 years, getting through around 5,000 of them before they’ve finished potty training.


Around 1,500 litres of crude oil (7) goes into those 5,000 diapers and that’s just for one child.


In total the world produces 167 billion disposable diapers each year, using more than 248 million barrels of crude oil, which represents around 0.7% of the world’s annual oil demand (8). Unfortunately, crude oil isn’t the only nasty going into those nappies.


Single-use nappies deliver a chemical cocktail

A 2019 study in France (9) found that disposable diapers contained more than 60 potentially hazardous chemicals and compounds, including dioxins and formaldehyde.


While the low levels of these compounds in diapers presents a negligible risk to babies’ health, single-use diapers also feature “parfum” - that catch-all term anyone with sensitive skin knows all too well. Who among us has more sensitive skin than a baby?


Reusable diapers are more convenient for the planet 

They’re also more convenient than you might imagine for parents. Modern washable diapers are easy to care for and use, as well as being considerably cheaper than disposables.


The price of a branded disposable in December 2022 was 30c and once a child is out of diapers, they’ll have worn around 5,000, which adds up to $1,500 per child.


Bambino Mio’s Changemaker Bundle costs far less and can be used on more than one child, which only increases the savings.


Washable nappies are easy to wash and dry

Thanks to improvements in modern washing machines, a 104F wash with a laundry cleanser is enough to get soiled diapers clean and ready for more action. Line drying washable diapers is the ideal solution, but an airer or cool tumble dry will also do the trick nicely and help to prolong the life of the diapers.


The total cost of washing and drying a set of cloth diapers for 2.5 years is around $150. Even when this expense is added to the upfront costs of the diapers themselves, it still represents a big household saving of up to $900.


Convinced? Join the reusables revolution today!

We all owe it to our children to make the world a better, safer, cleaner place to live and we can start that process from the day they’re born by choosing and using washable diapers.


Citations and References

(1) World Resources Institute (WRI). ‘10 Big Findings from the 2023 IPCC Report on Climate Change.’ 2023. Web. www.wri.org/insights/2023-ipcc-ar6-synthesis-report-climate-change-findings

(2) National Geographic. Education. ‘Microplastics.’ Web. education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/microplastics

(3) Reduce Reuse Recycle.’ 2023. Web. www.reducereuserecycle.co.uk/greenarticles/what_is_a_repair_cafe.php

(4) UK Government (GOV.UK). ‘House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups.’ 2019. Web. publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/657/657.pdf

(5) United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). ‘Facts and Figures About Materials, Waste and Recycling. Nondurable Goods: Product-Specific Data.’ 2022. Web. www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/nondurable-goods-product-specific-data

(6) How Stuff Works. ‘How Long Does it Take for Plastic to Decompose?’ 2023. Web. science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/how-long-does-it-take-for-plastics-to-biodegrade.htm

(7) Zero Waste Europe. ‘It’s Time to Clear Out Plastic & Chemicals from Nappies, Not the Poo.’ 2021. Web. zerowasteeurope.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/zwe_bffp_policy-briefing_Its-time-to-clear-out-plastic-chemicals-from-nappies-not-the-poop_en-2.pdf

(8) Statista. ‘Demand for Crude Oil Worldwide from 2005 to 2022, with a Forecast for 2023.’ 2023. Web. www.statista.com/statistics/271823/global-crude-oil-demand

(9) Anses. ‘Safety of Baby Diapers.’ 2019. Web. www.anses.fr/en/system/files/CONSO2017SA0019EN.pdf