Huggies Nappies and the Environment

The New Zealand Environment

There is no doubt that both cloth and disposable nappies have an impact on the environment, in fact this is true of most things bought from the supermarket. The important question is rather “what is the extent of each product’s impacts and what are manufacturers doing to reduce these?”

Here at Kimberly-Clark (makers of Huggies nappies) we have given a lot of effort to researching and improving what we make to provide parents with the best possible products while we continually try to minimise the environmental impacts.

You may be interested to know:

For even more information visit the Kimberly-Clark website or contact our Consumer Advisory Service by phone on 0800 733 703 or via email.

Biodegradable nappies can’t degrade much in landfill

Landfill sites are engineered to be stable and low in moisture. As a result, landfills are so dry and compact they “mummify” their contents meaning nothing much breaks down in landfill at all – even newspapers, which are 100% degradable, remain intact and legible for decades. A biodegradable nappy in landfill therefore will not even have the chance to biodegrade.

As virtually all nappies can’t be flushed down the toilet and will go in your normal rubbish bin ending up in landfill there is no difference between disposable and biodegradable in their impact on landfill or the environment.

How many disposable nappies go to landfill?

At Huggies, we understand you may still be concerned about the volume of your disposable nappies going to landfill (see the next section for more in depth information on this volume). Over the last 10 years we have reduced the bulk and volume of Huggies nappies by 50% by improving their absorbency. This has minimised the space Huggies nappies take up in landfill. We have also further reduced landfill volumes by limiting the amount of waste sent to landfill as a result of the manufacture of Huggies nappies.

We would also like to dispel a common myth about disposable nappies: it has been inaccurately reported that the number of disposable nappies going to landfill is 575 million. At an estimated use of 6 nappies per day, there would need to be an estimated 260,000 or twice as many children under 2.5 years old in New Zealand for this figure to be correct. The numbers just don’t add up. Our estimation is that the number is closer to 296 million.

Find out more about degradable nappies or find answers to environmental questions about Kimberly-Clark’s products on the Kimberly-Clark Australia & New Zealand website.

Nappies together with Sanitary products make up around 3% of NZ Landfill

The 2007-2008 data provided by the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment puts the percentage of landfill waste by weight attributable to “nappies and sanitary” waste at 3%. Plastics and paper each take up more than double that proportion. Interestingly, food and green waste (‘organic’) accounts for around 28% of our total waste composition. To read this report, visit the Ministry for the Environment’s website

Environmental Impact Chart
NZ Environment Graph

Disposable vs reusable nappies

Everyone wants the best for their baby, but they also want to make sure they are doing the right thing for the environment. The information that follows is based on studies conducted in the UK and Australia, which to our knowledge are the two significant pieces of research in this area.

The long running debate of reusable versus disposable nappies has now been clarified by a major Government sponsored and independently reviewed study in the United Kingdom in 2005,1 which was updated in 2008.2

This thoroughly documented study assessed a wide range of activities associated with manufacture, use and disposal of disposable and reusable nappies which can affect the environment.

To quote the 2008 updated report in its consideration of shaped reusable nappies: “The environmental impacts of using shaped reusable nappies can be higher or lower than using disposables, depending on how they are laundered. The report shows that, in contrast to the use of disposable nappies, it is consumers’ behaviour after purchase that determines most of the impacts from reusable nappies.”2

Carbon footprint of disposable and reusable nappies

In the 2008 update to the UK report, ‘An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies’,2 it was found that on average, reusable nappies had a slightly higher carbon footprint than disposable nappies, when laundered under typical household conditions.3

  • For reusable nappies, the carbon footprint is heavily dependent on the conditions of washing and drying.
  • The carbon load can be anywhere between 81% higher to 38% lower than disposable nappies depending on factors such as water temperature, use of tumble dryers or line drying and use by subsequent children.
  • The update found that the carbon footprint for disposable nappies has been reduced by 12% since the previous study and continues to reduce as nappies get thinner.
  • This also means a reduction in energy, raw materials, transportation and overall waste for disposable nappies.

The study reconfirms that both nappy systems have a similar carbon footprint.

Laundering of reusable nappies

The environmental effects of reusable nappies are often not discussed. Whether washed at home or in a commercial laundry, the environmental impacts of laundering reusable nappies need to be considered.

  • Washing and drying reusable nappies uses large amounts of energy such as gas and electricity which emit carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
  • Significant water usage (around 19 tonnes for every 1 tonne of laundry washed) is also required.
  • Chemicals used, such as pre-wash soakers and detergents, add substantial loads to waste water.
  • Depending on the choices made by consumers these factors can result in a greater or lesser impact.

What’s the verdict: do reusable nappies have an environmental advantage over disposables?

Independent and objective studies by the Australian Consumers’ Association’s consumer study of nappy performance since 1999, and most recently 2009,4 conclude:

“For years there’s been an ongoing debate over which type of nappy has the least impact on the environment. While it might seem clear cut that reusable cloth nappies would be a more environmentally friendly option than disposables, in fact there are environmental costs associated with using both.”4

This and the other life cycle assessment studies found that nappy alternatives have similar overall impacts on the environment in a typical usage scenario. The main differences are in the type of impact which occurs at each stage of each product’s life cycle such as the manufacture of both reusable and disposable nappies, the use of water, energy and chemicals for washing reusable nappies and the landfill impact of disposables.

So, based on these studies and conclusions, we would suggest that in a typical nappy usage scenario, parents can make a guilt free choice based on non-environmental factors such as performance, cost and convenience of the product.

What’s our information based on?

We have based our information on studies conducted in the UK and Australia which to our knowledge are the two significant pieces of research in this area.

The UK study as referenced above was conducted by the Environment Agency initially in 20051 with an update in 20082.

The Environment Agency surveys of nappy use found that for disposable nappies the average number of changes per day decreased from an average of seven at birth to an average of five at two and a half years. For reusable nappies, the Environment Agency surveys found that the average number of changes per day for children still in nappies decreased from eight at birth to an average of six at two and a half years.

The study also assumed that three-quarters of nappies are line dried outside and the remainder are tumble-dried. Nappies were assumed to be washed with wraps at 60°C, the minimum temperature recommended by the Department of Health. It was assumed each wrap is used twice between washes. However it also provided scenarios for different behaviours with regards to pre-wash, washing and drying.

An Australian study conducted by the University of Queensland5 assumed a “best practice” washing and drying regime for home-washed reusable nappies, based on Australian conditions:

  • Soiled (faeces-contaminated) nappies stored in a bucket (dry-pailed), and faeces flushed from the nappies once per day
  • Soiled nappies soaked in warm water with nappy sanitiser every second day;
  • All nappies (both wet and soaked soiled nappies) washed every second day;
  • Washing water unheated (i.e. cold wash), and all nappies line-dried.

We have referenced both studies because we believe our New Zealand weather over the course of a year will likely be a mix of UK and Australian climate conditions.

At Huggies we are very mindful of the potential environmental impact of our nappies. The Life Cycle Analyses conducted in the UK and Australia have found that whilst the main environmental impact of reusable nappies relate to washing and drying and is influenced by consumer behaviour, the main impact of disposable nappies is their manufacture and the end of life disposal.

This is one of the reasons why in 2009 we began our support for Envirocomp which now operates sanitary hygiene composting plants in Canterbury and the Greater Wellington region. Over that time it is estimated that the equivalent of 16 million nappies have been processed which would otherwise have gone to landfill.

The Envirocomp process takes sanitary hygiene waste and mixes it with green waste in an in-vessel HotRot system which over a period of days at a constantly monitored temperature mimics the natural compost process which in nature takes place on the forest floor. Envirocomp plans to extend its New Zealand coverage to include the Auckland region. We are very proud that Envirocomp which is Kiwi technology backed by Kiwi business has opened its first overseas plant in the UK.

Reality Check (Cost of Disposable Nappies vs Cloth/Reusable)

Cloth nappies may not be the low cost option people think they are. To make a fair comparison, the cost of cloth nappies in different sizes and wraps (which can be over $1000 during the period that a child is in nappies), the costs of washing additives (e.g. nappy soaker, washing powder, fabric conditioner), water rates and electricity to heat water, operate a washing machine and maybe a tumble dryer must be added to the equation.

We use renewable fibres in Huggies Nappies

Here at Huggies (Kimberly-Clark) the fibre for our nappies comes from sustainable, renewable pine plantations (Pinus radiata). We use fibre from the floor of these forests and pine plantation waste called “thinnings”. In the past this thinning material was left to rot on the forest floor or burnt.

By making use of a former waste product and ensuring our suppliers replant their plantations you can be assured these forests are managed to ensure full sustainability into the future.

Improvements to reduce the bulkiness of Huggies and reducing waste

Over the last ten years we have reduced the bulkiness of Huggies nappies by more than 50% through improved performance. This reduction has largely been achieved by substituting fibre with additional super-absorbent material and more effective product design.

For even more information visit the Kimberly-Clark website or contact our Consumer Advisory Service by phone on 0800 733 703, or via email.

1 Simon Aumônier & Michael Collins, 2005.
Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK, Environment Agency, Bristol, UK.

2 Simon Aumônier, Michael Collins, & Peter Garrett.
An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies [PDF, 37 pages, 171 kB], Science Report – SC010018/SR2, Oct 08, The Environment Agency, Bristol, UK.

3 This is referred to as the ‘baseline’ in the updated UK Lifecycle study. This baseline scenario assumed that nappies are used on one child only, dry-pailed (not soaked in sanitising solution) and washed in a washing machine with an average energy efficiency rating for appliances owned in 2006. Average use of tumble driers and washer-driers was taken, and it was assumed that three-quarters of nappies are line dried outside and the remainder are tumble-dried. Nappies were assumed to be washed with wraps at 60°C. It was assumed each wrap is used twice between washes. The agency considered other scenarios, but with the exception of this baseline and reuse on a second child, they considered other uses to be ‘extremes rather than general practice’.

4 Choice, Nappies, Toilet Training and Bathing, (Updated 2 September 2009), Reprinted from – with the permission of the Australian Consumers’ Association (ACA).

5 The University of Queensland, Brisbane.
Life Cycle Assessment: Reusable and Disposable Nappies in Australia