Are nappies compostable?

Over 5 million disposable nappies are used by Australians every day! 1 This results in two billion disposable nappies going to landfill each year.    That’s a lot of nappies! Obviously, nappies are not an avoidable item, so people who are waste conscious are looking for an alternative option.  

Currently, there are a number of products on the market that say they are compostable or biodegradable.  Sadly, this is misleading.   There are currently no nappies in Australia that are certified as compostable, and this is backed up by the Australasian Bioplastics Association.  

To be certified compostable, products must meet the Australian Standard 4736-2006 (certified for Industrial composting) and/or Australian Standard AS 5810-2010 (certified for home composting).  

There are a few reasons behind this;

  • All disposable nappies have an absorbent layer, made from sodium polyacrylate (SAP), which absorbs and holds moisture.  This polymer is neither biodegradable nor compostable.  
  • Some nappies use wheat or cornstarch as their main absorbent, but they still use a small amount of SAP.   
  • Some nappies still contain non biodegradable or non compostable plastic in the adhesive tabs.  

Most people think they’re helping out the environment by using nappies that are labelled biodegradable or eco-friendly (often made with wood pulp or bamboo) and whilst these materials that are less resource intensive (think plastic being made from crude oil)  to produce, they are not completely eco-friendly.  Biodegradable simply means that the nappy will break down into smaller pieces over time, those pieces will never disappear completely.  Furthermore, biodegradable nappies in landfill do not decompose.  Landfills are packed tight, with very little air and water and no sunlight gets in.   For any item to decompose, air, light and water is needed.   

As a consumer, cloth nappies are the most environmentally friendly nappy.   They contain zero chemicals, are significantly cheaper and can be used over and over again. 

As an industrial composter, you are under no obligation to receive nappies for composting.  Even if they were to become certified compostable, it is up to your processing facility/ company as to whether you accept them, taking into consideration contamination and screening operations and health and safety of employees.