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News Analysis: Is there really no difference between cloth and disposable nappies?

The Environment Agency (EA) last week released its Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of disposable and reusable nappies.

Its conclusion, which was splashed across television and the national papers, was that there was no difference in the environmental impact of either kind of nappy.

The LCA, carried out by independent consultants Environmental Resources Management over a four-year period, found that reusable nappies' environmental benefit of reducing the waste sent to landfill was cancelled out by the amount of energy, water and detergent used to clean them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the organisation that represents disposable nappy manufacturers welcomed the LCA's conclusion.

Absorbent Hygiene Products Manufacturers Association (AHPMA) director general Tracy Stewart said: "AHPMA welcomes this independent and conclusive study, which will be a source of reassurance for many parents and can finally lay to rest many of the exaggerated and misleading claims made by some organisations about the environmental impact of disposable nappies."

The "exaggerated claims" that Stewart referred to were those regarding disposable nappies' impact on landfill.

AHPMA claims that nappies contribute just 0.1% of total solid waste.

This, however, is a very misleading figure.

The Landfill Directive focuses on the diversion of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) from landfill and excludes construction and demolition waste.

Measuring nappies impact on landfill by including these heavy wastes conveniently makes their effect look minimal.

However, the figures which really matter for the UK and its European targets for BMW are those quoted in the LCA itself.

The LCA reports that disposable nappies account for 2-3% of household waste, approximately 400,000 tonnes per year.

According to the Women's Environmental Network (WEN), the LCA shows that cloth nappies can save waste without causing more global warming than disposable nappies.

WEN waste spokesman Ann Link said: "This LCA says what most other LCAs have: that both systems use similar amounts of energy but the disposable system uses more materials and puts more into landfill. Even in its current flawed state it shows that parents who use cloth nappies can save waste confident in the knowledge that washing them will cause no more global warming than disposable nappies."

The LCA examined three types of nappy use over a period of two and a half years, the average period before a child is potty-trained.

It looked at disposables, home laundered flat cloth nappies and commercially laundered pre-folded cloth nappies delivered to the home.

Despite EA director of environmental protection Tricia Henton highlighting the importance of reducing landfill in her foreword, by its conclusion the LCA made no mention of waste.

Instead it said: "The most significant environmental impacts for all three nappy systems were on resource depletion, acidification and global warming."

The fact that landfill went from being the most pressing matter to not being mentioned at all was the main reason that the WEN described the LCA as flawed.

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) also expressed its reservations with the LCA's conclusions, albeit for different reasons.

The Government-funded agency runs a £2.6 million Real Nappy Programme promoting the use of reusable nappies and expressed misgivings with the fact that the reusable nappies used in the study were those available in 2000-2001. &

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