April 11th, 2014

Does the nanny state have a role in changing nappies?

7 minute read

by Thomas Vergunst


Some time ago I wrote an article on the merits of reusable nappies; to my surprise the piece proved to be rather popular on Isonomia and generated a whole string of comments on the site. It also stimulated some animated conversations – one friend challenged me as to:

“Why all the focus on trying to make parents feel responsible for making the choice between disposable and reusable nappies – should responsibility for these things always left to the individual, with parents left feeling guilty when they make the ‘wrong’ choice?”

This question stuck with me as a prime example of an age-old divide between libertarian and socialist perspectives: who’s responsible for my survival and wellbeing, me or the state? As a parent who does not own a ranch or a gun, and has enjoyed the significant benefits of the NHS, I’m inclined to feel that the state can (and should) play a role in ensuring that our economies don’t trash the environment for our children. And where better for the nanny state to lend a hand than in helping parents deal better with nappies, regardless of whether they choose disposable or towelling?


The bottom line

I see the disposable nappy as an icon of the linear ‘take, make, dispose’ model of the economy – one reason why as a parent I try to avoid them. There are nascent signs of efforts being made to implement a more circular economy in various corners of the globe, but for the time being they remain few, far between and largely isolated. If there are measures that can be adopted in order to ensure that even the archetypally throwaway disposable nappy can be more effectively cycled through the economy, it could signal a real shift towards a more sustainable mode of production and consumption.

The extent of the linear nappy economy is easily demonstrated. Firstly, according to the Office for National Statistics, there were over 813,000 live births in the UK in 2012. Based on WRAP research into average nappy usage for each six month period between 0 and 2.5 years, and using Eunomia’s free Waste Prevention Toolkit we can calculate that these children will have blessed us with an estimated 896,000 tonnes of discarded nappy related waste before they turn three. Only 0.04% of this waste will come from parents who throw away towelling nappies.

Assuming that these nappies are sent to landfill this will be costing local authorities in the region of £90m in gate fees and landfill tax alone (or approximately £81 million if all of the waste was sent for incineration at a cost of £90 per tonne). This cost, borne by council tax payers, is effectively a subsidy for the likes of Proctor and Gamble who, at present, are not required to take any responsibility for the collection and disposal of their products once used.

There are a number of measures that can be used at different points in the production and consumption process to encourage manufacturers and consumers to value resources and ensure that they are used in a more circular fashion. State intervention to require action on the part of nappy producers and manufacturers would bring about far greater change than a few committed individuals opting for reusable nappies out of principle. Let’s briefly examine a few of the regulatory and economic measures that could be used for such purposes.


Nappy rationalisation

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation could provide a substantive solution by encouraging producers and manufacturers of disposable nappies to collect and recycle their products. Under Article 8 of the Waste Framework Directive Member States are given free rein to introduce EPR schemes. Paragraph 2 of this Article states:

Member States may take appropriate measures to encourage the design of products in order to reduce their environmental impacts and the generation of waste in the course of the production and subsequent use of products, and in order to ensure that the recovery and disposal of products that have become waste take place in accordance with Articles 4 and 13.

Such measures may encourage, inter alia, the development, production and marketing of products that are suitable for multiple use, that are technically durable and that are, after having become waste, suitable for proper and safe recovery and environmentally compatible disposal.

Article 4 refers to the provision that the waste hierarchy must be applied as a ‘priority order in waste prevention and management legislation and policy’, whilst Article 13 states that Member States shall take the necessary measures to ensure that waste is managed in a way that does not endanger human health or the environment.

Applying EPR legislation to disposable nappies – or, for that matter, all absorbent hygiene products – seems like an entirely reasonable and appropriate measure to ensure that they are recovered and reprocessed.  If absorbent hygiene products were covered by EPR in the UK, would current efforts to recycle these materials not receive a welcome and much needed boost? In order to guarantee results, such schemes could be accompanied by statutory recycling targets, as is currently the case with the EPR legislation surrounding packaging waste and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE).


Nappy photo

Improving how we manage nappy waste could be a baby step towards a circular economy. Photo by Thomas Vergunst.


Legislation on eco-design is already a core component of European rules on products that consume energy. However, they could equally be applied to non-energy products to ensure that environmental considerations are taken into account at the design phase and that products can be more easily reused / recycled. EPR may encourage improved design of nappies, but, as is the case with WEEE in the UK, this is by no means guaranteed. The application of eco-design standards could help to guarantee that disposable nappies are designed and manufactured with their recyclability in mind.

In addition to regulatory measures there are a number of economic instruments that could also be considered. Take taxes, for example. Taxes can be used at almost all stages in the circular economy to help internalise the negative externalities associated with the extraction of raw materials, production, distribution, and disposal of wastes. Economists talk of externalities when the full costs of a product or service are not reflected in the final price. Such taxes, when well formulated, can help to drive efficiencies in the use of materials at all stages of the economy. Indeed, even the Director of the ardently pro free trade International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, has argued that ‘getting the prices right’ is essential if we are to shift to a green economy.

Pay-as-you-throw schemes, where households are charged based on the amount of waste they discard, have also been shown to be very effective in encouraging householders to reduce waste arisings, although it is unclear whether this would act as sufficient incentive to cause parents to switch to reusable nappies. Such measures could penalise single parent households that feel they cannot make the switch – although concessions could arguably be given in these circumstances to prevent any unfair impact.

Closing the loop on disposable nappies could also be encouraged by the use of financial incentives. For example, support could be given to industry for R&D to improve the recyclability of disposable nappies; consumers could be helped to purchase sustainable disposable variants (e.g. through reduced rate of VAT); or incentives could be given for the collection and recycling of disposable nappies until the market is sufficiently established.


Diaper issues

Hopefully the above has shown that there are clear alternatives to the current linear nappy economy, and that government and industry involvement could help to ensure that our little darlings are not responsible for massive environmental atrocities before they can even utter the word ‘landfill’. Sadly, the biggest step the coalition Government seems able to bring itself to take towards a circular economy is a half-baked charge on single use plastic carrier bags.

It will take a lot more than that to ensure that our children grow up to inherit a more sustainable economy that has internalised the fact that we live on a finite planet where scarce resources have to be shared with our own and future generations. I therefore can’t help but agree with my friend that notwithstanding the advantages of towelling nappies, we need to consider all of the options available in the policy toolbox. Hammering on at parents to choose reusable shouldn’t be at the exclusion of efforts to reduce the impact of disposable nappies: we need to use all of the tools at our disposal if we’re to construct a solution to the circular economy puzzle.


Thomas Vergunst



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sarah o'sheaPeter Jones (the OBE one)Olmo ForniHilary VickPenny B Recent comment authors

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sarah o'shea
sarah o'shea

Hi I’m rather new to the world of nappies and have just started using bambino mio reusable nappies after using naty nappies for the first 9 weeks with my son. Is it true that nappies produced by companies like pampers take approximately 400 years to break down but nappies produced by companies like naty take approximately 40 years? If so shouldnt governments around the world be using legislation to force nappy companies to produce nappies that take less time to break down, making them more responsible for the products that they produce and make huge profits from. This can be… Read more »

Peter Jones

The subject of disposable nappies has occupied various of my Parliamentary Select Committee responses over the years and the points made are valid. For a decade or so I have tried to persuade the manufacturers thatas the price of energy rises it is in their own interest to tie up with Royal Mail/ TNT/ UPS or other major parcels carriers to offer a mail back service for used nappies. Containment packaging technology of return bags/closures is now well advanced and these can be included in the packs of sold new nappies. This offers an on line sale direct to users… Read more »

Olmo Forni
Olmo Forni

Hi, interesting issue, and good example of how economic incentives/targeted taxation could solve the issue. I feel, however, that there’s a fundamental issue being ignored here, that is the fact diapers, nappies and sanitary pads constitute that 5 – 10% of household waste that, at the moment, cannot be recycled. First hand experience in Italy (Comuni Ricicloni) has shown local administrations can easily reach up to 90% recycling rates, but that exceeding this rate is really hard because of these products (nappies&co). While taxation and EPR would offer an interesting and very liberal way to manage behavioral change and disincentive… Read more »

Hilary Vick
Hilary Vick

Welcome to the debate Thomas and thanks for injecting it with new ideas. It’s good to have dads on board! As someone who’s been working in this area for 11 years I would add that it’s a bigger issue than just a question of the cost, collection and method of disposable nappy waste. Put simply this has become a public health issue. We need to look at how the single-use nappy industry has changed expectations around nappy use that mean children are staying in nappies for longer. This was essential to their growth business model. But it has also increased… Read more »

Penny B
Penny B

Did you know, there is a network of mainly non-profit cloth nappy libraries across the UK now, growing every month? People can trial cloth nappies without the outlay, find out how they work, find out which work for them and whether they even want to do them. Most libraries do regular demos locally where you can find out more, and are run by volunteers. https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=210790892075311005303.0004c9cf0c87b3ebc4c89&msa=0