In 2015, a 10-ton lump of food fat and baby wipes, called a fatberg, was removed from the London sewer system at a cost of £400,000 (The Atlantic).
In 2017, wet wipes were responsible for 90% of sewer blockages in the UK (Friends of the Earth).
All this to say, while single use baby wipes may be designed to clean up messes, they create a lot more downstream. To understand the true length to which baby wipes wreak havoc on our planet, let’s dive into a life cycle analysis of the small squares we use to wipe our childrens’ bums.
What is ‘lifecycle analysis’ and why is it important?
If you consider yourself a LifeSaver, eco-warrior, or at least someone who is curious about the state of our planet and how we can remediate it, you may have heard of the term “lifecycle analysis.” Despite being a very logistically complex process, the actual meaning of lifecycle analysis is pretty intuitive to understand. Basically life cycle assessments (LCAs) are comprehensive forms of environmental impact assessment, as they typically consider upstream supply chain data of products all the way through disposal at the end of their life, depending on the study.
LCAs can be applied to entire companies or industries, but for the sake of extreme simplicity, we will focus on the assessment of environmental impact for one particular product. The processes included in the analysis include: raw material extraction, manufacturing and processing, transportation, usage and retail and waste disposal (Ecochain). For each of these processes, a variety of metrics can be chosen to understand how each step in the chain impacts the planet. Some of these might be greenhouse warming potential (i.e. amount of greenhouse gases), eutrophication potential, particulate matter release, acidification potential, and ecotoxicity. Ultimately, the decision of which metrics to focus on depends on which environmental burden researchers find most pertinent to analyze. Frequently, greenhouse gases are identified as one of those key performance indicators, which is actually where the calculation of carbon footprints stems from!
Now this is all good and dandy in theory, but without application, these concepts can be difficult to really grasp. So in today’s exploration we will investigate the lifecycle impact of baby wipes!
What is considered in the calculation of lifecycle impact of baby wipes?
The first factor to consider in the calculation of impact for traditional baby wipes is the raw materials involved. This variable might appear to be the most straight-forward, but alas there are often hidden compounds and materials that you may not immediately ponder. For baby wipes, this includes raw fibers such as cotton or rayon in addition to synthetic fibers like polyester. That’s right! Like so many other products these days, it seems, manufacturers have found a way to sneak plastic into baby wipes, which adds to the amount of material needed to be extracted.
The “wet” part of a wet wipe also involves material extraction. Besides water, this solution includes, “mild detergents mixed with moisturizing agents, fragrance, and preservatives” (How Products Are Made). For both the solution and physical fiber included in wet wipes, the extraction of these raw materials from their natural sources is considered in the overall LCA calculation. For instance, the fuel needed to operate machinery needed to extract fossil fuels for plastic would be included here.
Secondly, the manufacturing and processing of baby wipes create environmental impact. Specifically, baby wipes are made first by preparing the fibers through either a wet or dry laid process to weave cohesive fabrics. Then, the solution is mixed and heated, and finally applied to the fabric. All of these processes require water and electricity, and they produce wastewater, which contributes to the overall environmental footprint.
The next LCA component is transportation, which includes movement from the farm or extraction site of the raw materials all the way to the final destination of the fabric. In the hands of a paying customer. Whether by plane, truck, or barge, fuel is required to power these vehicles, and the heavier the product at hand, the lower the fuel efficiency and the higher overall emissions. Even at the end of life, after being transported to and used by a consumer, the wipes must then be shipped off to a landfill (assuming that they were properly disposed of and not down the drain).
The final two components of LCA are usage & retail and waste disposal. Depending on the scope of the analysis and what the researcher deems pertinent to include, the environmental impact of castille soap or other baby products that are used alongside baby wipes might be accounted for. Also, unsold wipes at the retail-level could boost impact levels as a result of plummeting utility of the product.
When it comes to other end of life scenarios, one particularly problematic outcome is when these synthetic cloths are flushed down the drain they can cause massive clumps that require hefty machinery and complex operations to undo. In a landfill environment, on the other hand, baby wipes take more than 100 years to decompose (Big Green Smile). Neither of these options are necessarily preferable, but comparing footprints for each of them can help consumers and producers make decisions as to which would be the environmentally optimal disposal route.
By and large, adding together these five factors, we can see that there is a lot that goes into comprehending the vast sources of ecological footprint for a product even as simple as a baby wipe. Knowing this information, how can we make smarter consumption decisions to reduce the impact that we induce through buying new things?
What alternatives can I buy instead of traditional baby wipes?
Generally speaking, turning to non-single use alternatives is one of the best strategies to reduce our impact on the planet. Fortunately, reusable baby wipes exist, and in fact these durable wipes were the status quo up until 1957!
On BOAS, brands like Carotte & Cie offer wipes made of 100% GOTS certified cotton screenprinted with water-based ink. In that sense, the environmental costs of raw material extraction and the impact of disposal are significantly reduced. This is especially true considering that these cloths can be multi-purpose and re-used for baby changing, baby’s toilet, and removing makeup. Last but not least, since all of the wipes are made in a heavily-regulated workshop in France, supply chain transparency of this company’s operationsis spectacularly high.
As lifecycle analysis and supply chain transparency become more and more commonplace, for baby wipes and beyond, we can push forth a consumer revolution to demand sustainability! BOAS hopes to pioneer and support such a movement by congregating brands under this umbrella mission to collaborate and aid in the fight!