September 12th, 2014

Real nappies: absorbing the lessons of incentive schemes

8 minute read

by Hilary Vick


For the past 11 years I have been trying to get more London parents to try reusable nappies. This may be one of the biggest behavioural change challenges there is. Disposables nappies are cheap, convenient and easy to dispose of. You can throw a nappy in a park bin, pop it in the nappy bin at the swimming pool, leave a day’s worth at your baby’s nursery. Reusables are more difficult, right? You have to carry stinky ones home with you and then you have to wash and dry them. So how do you persuade people to use the more difficult, unfamiliar option?

Perhaps single-use nappies are too easy. The most effective way to reduce nappy waste might be to make using “disposable” nappies more difficult. As it has become more and more stressful and expensive to drive and park a car a car in London, public transport has become the norm, even if it is less convenient.

But nothing similar has been tried with nappies, and there seems to be little interest in either restricting their disposal or passing on the cost to parents. The policy tool of choice has been incentive and reward schemes – but these are by no means easy to design. So what’s the evidence that they can be an effective use of public funds?


Capitol idea

My initial experience of nappy incentives was when I set up a business, Nappy Ever After. Local nappy laundry rewards were already being used elsewhere in the UK to encourage parents to try washable nappies, and the North London Waste Authority and LB Camden decided to pilot an incentive scheme via my company. They funded a £35 cashback offer, taken off the first month’s payment, to encourage people to try out a nappy laundry service.

The timing was excellent. When the scheme was launched in September 2003, the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) and the Real Nappy Association (RNA) had recently announced that, in their view, washable nappies were the most environmentally friendly nappy and laundry services had even lower environmental impacts. The government had just brought out a green paper on waste, which recommended supporting nappy washing businesses. So did the London Mayor’s draft waste plan for London. The government allocated £2m to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to stimulate the real nappy market.

The pilots took off, and before long Camden parents who washed nappies at home successfully demanded that the cashback scheme was extended to them. Soon the other six boroughs of the NLWA joined in, bringing in Barnet, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Waltham Forest.


Diaper communication

One of the major factors in the success of the nappy cashback scheme was the accessibility of the market targeted – expectant parents and mothers. They all have contact with influencers such as midwives and health visitors and are open to receiving advice. In order to claim your cashback you had to submit both a proof of purchase and proof (a form signed by a health professional) that you were using them. Unfortunately, this made claiming the money a bit of a hassle – and some people never got around to it, making impacts harder to measure. On the positive side, it was a great way of making health service staff aware of real nappies, the cashback, and parents’ enthusiasm for both.

Perhaps more importantly, as parents enter this new phase of their lives, they tend to meet up with other people in the same boat. The cashback generated great word of mouth. Mothers don’t want to preach about real nappies to their friends but telling them they could get money back – that’s different, right? That’s not preaching, that’s spreading information about a perk.



How to rear a child’s rear: incentives can make reusable nappies cheaper and easier for parents. Photo source: Hilary Vick.


The cashback scheme was an immediate success in North London, but in other counties such as Norfolk and Suffolk, similar schemes were dropped because uptake was too low to justify the costs. Outside of the parts of southern England where a proactive nappy laundry service was operating, the uptake tended to be less than one per cent of births.

Nappy Ever After worked hard at marketing, whether on the streets through branded bikes and an electric van, or via volunteers attending drop-ins.

However, demographics may well have been a bigger contributor – in London people tend to live in small flats, and parents tend to get out and about and socialise a lot. Also, the big American and Australasian population culturally has a greater expectation of real nappy use.

The cashback scheme was a reward for buying real nappies: you got money back if you bought and used them. In 2007 a new voucher scheme, Real Nappies for London was launched by WEN. Waste and recycling officers from 26 London boroughs were involved in the design of this pan-London scheme. The voucher was effectively cash to help with the upfront cost of buying nappies – a proper incentive scheme.


A wash out

However this coincided with the publicity surrounding the Environment Agency’s infamous Nappy Life Cycle Analysis published in 2005. This stated that omitting the factor of land use, washable nappies were just as bad for the environment as disposables.

Whilst those parents who were strongly committed to real nappies were unlikely to be influenced, ‘swing’ real nappy users were a different matter. Some may have been only too happy to be told that there was no environmental benefit to washing nappies, and to the Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association (AHPMA) line that “Parents should feel no guilt, they should just choose the product that best suits their lifestyle.” As with breastfeeding and healthy eating, real nappies must compete with sophisticated nudges from marketing by wealthy multi-nationals pushing consumers towards their products.

Of course, the 2005 report was deeply flawed, and an update in 2008 said that reusables could have up to 40% lower carbon impacts (even leaving aside the issue of waste). Unfortunately there was no industry body to put the case for reusables… The revisions received little media coverage and the myth remains that washable nappies don’t benefit the environment.


A nappy balance

So what has the impact of the incentive and reward schemes been? This is difficult to say. We can measure uptake of voucher easily enough, but not everyone who uses the voucher will use the nappies. Some may still use “disposables” at nights or during the winter months when drying nappies is a challenge. Real Nappies for London (RNfL) estimates that each voucher will result in a 50% reduction in the mass of disposable nappies a household produces: in some cases there will be zero diversion, in others 100%, and in most cases somewhere in between.

RNfL also runs a continuous survey about the extent of ongoing use, but respondents are self-selecting; those who give up are less likely to bother to fill in a questionnaire. At the same time, the voucher scheme doesn’t represent the full extent of the real nappy uptake it helps to promote. There are many pre-loved nappies in circulation, provided by friends, relatives, freecycle or eBay, whose users have no motivation to apply for a voucher.

The average local authority spends £100 per baby on collecting and disposing of nappy waste. London now has a huge diversity of real nappy schemes; some boroughs offer incentives, others rewards, free trial packs, subsidised trial packs, information about real nappies – or nothing at all. Most don’t even have anywhere to see reusables before you buy. Spending a little money on nudging parents to reduce nappy waste by 10% could save a good deal of money, but authorities are reluctant to invest without clear evidence about what works. It’s perfectly set up for a piece of research to investigate the varying impacts of these schemes on the average volume of disposable nappy waste per baby.

Authorities could also benefit from advice on how to structure schemes, taking on board the views and interests of those working in the washable nappy sector and taking care not to unduly distort the market.

While progress on reducing nappy waste seems painfully slow it’s important to remind ourselves that the disposable nappy industry grew its market through constant innovation and competition over several decades. The reusable nappy industry has fought back with products in cutting edge fabrics that increase ease of use and meet the high expectations of today’s new parents but these products are unknown to the vast percentage of expectant parents.

Spending on incentives and rewards was made possible by the Waste Minimisation Act of 1998. They are still the only tool available to local authorities to reduce nappy waste; they are also a fraction of the cost of nappy waste disposal. It’s really not hard to justify a small spend on a smart scheme to help create an environment locally in which washable nappy use can grow to eventually become the norm.


Hilary Vick


Hilary Vick SML


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25 Comments on "Real nappies: absorbing the lessons of incentive schemes"

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Kate Meads
Hi Hilary, I have been running various programs in New Zealand for quite some time and I used to import and sell nappies here in NZ. Having trialed most of what you talked about above, I have found a way that reall works over here and I am successfully employed full time now through my program I have developed here. The main thing is that I dont sell anything which makes what I offer unique and my program is not just about nappies which ticks more waste minimisation boxes. I am have all sorts going on but one of the… Read more »
Hilary Vick
Kate, It’s great to hear from you. I’ve looked at your website and love the services you are offering. Actually some of it is quite similar to new products and services we’re in the process of developing at RNfL. You’re way ahead of us. It would be great if you could come over and share your knowledge and experience. I see that mums can effectively get $90 worth of reusable nappies for $25 when they attend your workshops. Can you tell me how that is funded? Do you have data on the number of people who continue to use the… Read more »
Peter Jones
Hi Hilary, I enjoyed this article, and am glad it has produced so much discussion. One point I picked up on is that, valuable though incentive schemes can be, their impact seems to be somewhat marginal. At the start of your article, you contrast London’s approach to nappies with its approach to traffic. Do you think that there are ways that could be more effective still in promoting real nappy use – whether that might be limits on residual waste collection, pay as you throw for residual waste, or an producer responsibility scheme for disposable nappies? I also wondered if… Read more »
Penny B
The nappy libraries are very successful. Last year (may 2013-may 2014) our library loaned out 112 kits and of them only 2 people did not start using cloth (initially it was 3 people but one has since come back again and now uses cloth part time). Today I crashed a sling meet at a breastfeeding support group with my nappies, had three people book to come and get kits next week, and gave out my phone number to 5 or 6 others who were interested. that just wouldn’t happen with an incentive scheme. We are so busy that we are… Read more »
Hilary Vick
Penny, you are amazing! I agree that investment in nappy libraries is necessary to enable them to survive and flourish. But there are people who wouldn’t use a nappy library so we need investment in both incentives and libraries not one or the other. One of the problems with the RNfL voucher is the effort required to apply for them. I can say from experience that it can act as a barrier to purchasing real nappies. What I’d like to see is low value real nappy vouchers issued with the prescription exemption card. What do you think of that idea?
Penny B
Interestingly, that is one of the ideas I’ve been discussing with a major British retailer over the last year. The Napnap voucher scheme has just been taken over by a lady involved in the libraries too and we are also working on a way to use those to encourage more uptake. If this particular retailer could be convinced to participate in my idea, it would make a huge difference to uptake. Unfortunately I had a set back when the person I was dealing with was moved to a different position in the company so I had to start again, but… Read more »
Hilary Vick
Big questions Peter! Outside the reusable nappy sector people don’t realise there’s a huge buzz about washable nappies at the moment. People are getting the waste message. They don’t want to leave out a huge bag of disposable nappy waste. Reusable nappies are getting better and cheaper. Nappy libraries are popping up all over the UK. People are far more willing to use pre-loved nappies. Families don’t want to waste money on disposables. There’s never been a better time to promote real nappy use. Engaging parents in peer recommendation of incentive schemes is a cheap and low risk investment. While… Read more »
Sarah G
I am one of the ‘unlucky’ ones as I live in Norfolk and when I had my first baby in 2012 the incentive scheme has already closed down. However, my sister-in-law who had benefitted from an incentive scheme a few years before passed me her (sadly) unused nappies. From then on I decided that I was going to be a cloth bum mum. I now have a second child and I am really reaping the rewards of that decision. I won’t lie and say we have never used disposables, we have, but we have also saved hundred’s of nappies going… Read more »
Hilary Vick

Thanks for mentioning CSP. What most people don’t realise is that the benefit of being more comfortable and the reliability of CSP makes the washing worthwhile. Plus of course there’s the Mooncup. Vested interests and inertia mean it’s very difficult for these products to get exposure.

Christine McRitchie
Great article. I found real nappies through parents recommending them, and actually got started because of a nappy trial scheme run by Plush Pants, at the time it was about the only way to trial real nappies by post as the concept of a local nappy library was very much in it’s infancy. I got so passionate about them I ended up running the business – and from running the trial scheme I got to see that over the years (10 years I’ve been running it now) around 80% of parents who actually try real nappies go on to convert… Read more »
Great to hear all these initiatives! Just wondering, does anyone have some data on the uptake and diversion from landfill of real (modern cloth) nappies from the UK experiences? Zero Waste SA has just supported a pilot here in Adelaide, South Australia, which offered families an opportunity to ‘try before you buy’ along with a series of demonstration sessions. We’re yet to turn the report into a web friendly case study, but there is info on the program here: Of the 318 families who took up the opportunity to hire a kit at a subsidised rate, 148 responded to… Read more »
Hilary Vick
Thanks Sharon, great to see and hear about your scheme in Australia. Re data; at Real Nappies for London (RNfL) we know the percentage of people we actively engage with info about the RNfL voucher per live birth in the boroughs in which we operate. We also know how many people use vouchers to buy nappies. We estimate waste diverted from landfill/incineration and the cost savings. We also have baseline data of the volume of nappy waste in the household wastestream. The data we want, but still don’t have is the actual reduction of nappy waste and thus reduction in… Read more »