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Disposable and Reusable Nappies

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what action they plan to take following the publication of the DEFRA report Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK 2023.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I acknowledge support in work on this issue from the reusable nappy industry-linked Nappy Alliance.

My Lords, Defra’s assessment of disposable and reusable nappies concluded that no type of nappy clearly had better or worse environmental performance across its life cycle. We have no plans to take further policy action on nappies at this time. We hope that industry will use the report to continue to improve the environmental impact of nappies, and that it helps consumers make the best choice for them.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, although I find it somewhat astonishing. I am not quite sure that he is looking at the same report I am, given that it shows that reusables are 25% lower for carbon emissions right now. If you have a green electricity supplier they are 93% better, and in terms of material outputs they are 98% better. This report clearly shows that if the Government want to deliver on their waste reduction, carbon emission and plastic pollution targets, as well as saving so many families money, they should work towards reusables.

I wish it was as simple as that. The noble Baroness is absolutely right with her figures on the global warming potential of reusable versus disposal nappies. However, reusable nappies have a higher environmental impact in 11 categories. These include terrestrial acidification, marine eutrophication—the noble Baroness shakes her head, but it is in the report—fresh water and marine ecotoxicity, an issue she has raised with me before, human carcinogenic toxicity, mineral resource scarcity and domestic water consumption. If you look at this in a one-sided way, as somebody once said, with every action there is an equal opposite reaction.

My Lords, in researching this Question I asked an expert—my daughter, who has four children and has used both types of nappies. In comparing the impact of reusable versus disposable nappies, nobody seems to have factored in the amount of time it takes to do all the washing of cloth nappies. She had to give up cloth nappies when she went back to work. Some 3 billion nappies are thrown away into landfill every year in the UK. This is literally a terrible waste and the Nappy Alliance, as the noble Baroness alluded to, is calling for a national nappy waste strategy. Are the Government planning to produce such a strategy? If not, why not?

With five children, I should perhaps also declare an interest. I like to think I pulled my weight, though my wife might disagree. The noble Baroness’s point about 3.6 billion nappies is right. About 78% of those go into incineration but 22% go into landfill, which is 22% too much. We have looked at this in a number of ways. Local authorities have the lead on this, and it is about supporting them to have schemes that work locally; the Government do not feel we can take action at a governmental level. There are many other—if noble Lords can excuse the expression—crocodiles closer to the canoe in terms of tackling environmental problems. Textiles and plastic are an absolute priority for us, but we certainly want to support local authorities in trying to achieve better disposal of nappies in the future.

My Lords, on a subject related to nappies, a recent House of Lords report recommended banning non-degradable wet wipes; the Government response was that they will ban wet wipes subject to consultation. I find it hard to believe that any consultation is really needed. If it is a procedural requirement, can the Minister tell us how soon this can be completed and a ban put in place?

In the Plan for Water published in April we said that we were going to do this, and 96% of respondents to our call for evidence supported a ban on wet wipes. More information on the proposed timing of any ban will follow the announcement of the details of that consultation.

My Lords, the life cycle assessment study showed that the environmental impact of reusable nappies varied greatly depending on how they were laundered—for example, not tumble-drying and using lower temperatures. Are the Government prepared to look at incentives to encourage the use of reusable nappies and at the same time provide information, working with manufacturers, as to how best to wash and look after them to have the least impact on the environment? We really need to get to the bottom of this issue.

Congratulations to the noble Baroness on the joke of the day. We want to assist consumers in making the right choices. The Competition and Markets Authority has produced guidance on green claims and is investigating both how products and services could be more eco-friendly and how they are marketed—that is one part of it. The noble Baroness is right. We calculate the figures on potential nappy use in future on children being potty-trained by the age of two and a half. I am sure that most noble Lords were probably nappy-trained within two and a half months. If we can encourage the better use of green tariffs and other uses of electricity, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned, I am sure that the differential between disposables and non-disposables can be improved.

My Lords, I implore the Minister, in answering this very important Question before your Lordships’ House, to ensure that he does not throw the baby out with the bath-water.

I have run out of ribald replies. This is a serious matter: nappies account for about 4.5% of the waste that local authorities have to deal with. With plastics, textiles and everything else, it is important that we tackle this. I will try to think of another ribald reply for the next question.

My Lords, I must confess that I am not an expert on nappies, despite the rumours and attacks that I get from the Scottish nationalists about incontinence. However, in view of the absolute shambles that the Scottish Greens have made of the deposit return scheme, will the Minister be very wary of anything put forward by their English counterparts?

I think we all want a deposit return scheme, which is a very important way of recycling more products, but the coalition between the Greens and the Scottish National Party has created a disaster zone and has actually put the whole thing back. I think we are now on track to have a scheme that will be a UK-wide common standard for similar products, which has long been needed. That will be better for Scotland, the United Kingdom and the environment.

Can the Minister tell us the estimated cotton content of the various nappies? If there is a figure, who has done the checking to make sure that none of that cotton comes from Xinjiang in China?

The noble Lord will not be surprised that I do not know that figure. I know that the impact of carbon on the environment has dropped considerably since the last life cycle assessment in 2008. That is welcome and we want to see more of it, but we also want to make sure that all our policies on plastics are feeding through to this area of waste management, and that we are tackling the issue of where the products come from, which is entirely right.

My Lords, can the Minister say how much we have spent on the wet wipes survey? It seems a complete waste of time. I would like to know how much money his department has spent on this useless exercise.

I cannot tell the noble Lord how much we have spent, but if he is criticising my department for asking the people who use these products, those who manufacture them and those who are seeking to create alternative ones that are more environmentally friendly, I do not accept that. It is important that we engage. I do not think we should consult on everything all the time, and sometimes we are rightly criticised for doing too much consultation, but we want to get this right.