Local authorities have used incentives and rewards for many years to try to bring about behavioural change, especially in the area of recycling and waste prevention.  Hilary Vick, manager of Real Nappies for London and founder of Nappy Ever After talks incentives to promote the greener practice of using reusable nappies. Article originally featured on Isonomia.

For the past 11 years I have been trying to get more London parents to try reusable nappies. This may be one of the biggest behavioural change challenges there is. Disposables nappies are cheap, convenient and easy to dispose of. You can throw a nappy in a park bin, pop it in the nappy bin at the swimming pool, leave a day’s worth at your baby’s nursery. Reusables are more difficult, right? You have to carry stinky ones home with you and then you have to wash and dry them. So how do you persuade people to use the more difficult, unfamiliar option?

Perhaps single-use nappies are too easy. The most effective way to reduce nappy waste might be to make using “disposable” nappies more difficult. As it has become more and more stressful and expensive to drive and park a car a car in London, public transport has become the norm, even if it is less convenient.

But nothing similar has been tried with nappies, and there seems to be little interest in either restricting their disposal or passing on the cost to parents. The policy tool of choice has been incentive and reward schemes – but these are by no means easy to design. So what’s the evidence that they can be an effective use of public funds?

Capitol idea

My initial experience of nappy incentives was when I set up a business, Nappy Ever After. Local nappy laundry rewards were already being used elsewhere in the UK to encourage parents to try washable nappies, and the North London Waste Authority and LB Camden decided to pilot an incentive scheme via my company. They funded a £35 cashback offer, taken off the first month’s payment, to encourage people to try out a nappy laundry service.

The timing was excellent. When the scheme was launched in September 2003, Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) and the Real Nappy Association (RNA) had recently announced that, in their view, washable nappies were the most environmentally friendly nappy and laundry services had even lower environmental impacts. The government had just brought out a green paper on waste, which recommended supporting nappy washing businesses. So did the London Mayor’s draft waste plan for London. The government allocated £2m to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to stimulate the real nappy market.

The pilots took off, and before long Camden parents who washed nappies at home successfully demanded that the cashback scheme was extended to them. Soon the other six boroughs of the NLWA joined in, bringing in Barnet, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Waltham Forest.

Diaper communication

One of the major factors in the success of the nappy cashback scheme was the accessibility of the market targeted – expectant parents and mothers. They all have contact with influencers such as midwives and health visitors and are open to receiving advice. In order to claim your cashback you had to submit both a proof of purchase and proof (a form signed by a health professional) that you were using them. Unfortunately, this made claiming the money a bit of a hassle – and some people never got around to it, making impacts harder to measure. On the positive side, it was a great way of making health service staff aware of real nappies, the cashback, and parents’ enthusiasm for both.

Perhaps more importantly, as parents enter this new phase of their lives, they tend to meet up with other people in the same boat. The cashback generated great word of mouth. Mothers don’t want to preach about real nappies to their friends but telling them they could get money back – that’s different, right? That’s not preaching, that’s spreading information about a perk.

The cashback scheme was an immediate success in North London, but in other counties such as Norfolk and Suffolk, similar schemes were dropped because uptake was too low to justify the costs. Outside of the parts of southern England where a proactive nappy laundry service was operating, the uptake tended to be less than one per cent of births.

Nappy Ever After worked hard at marketing, whether on the streets through branded bikes and an electric van, or via volunteers attending drop-ins.

However, demographics may well have been a bigger contributor – in London people tend to live in small flats, and parents tend to get out and about and socialise a lot. Also, the big American and Australasian population culturally has a greater expectation of real nappy use.

The cashback scheme was a reward for buying real nappies: you got money back if you bought and used them. In 2007 a new voucher scheme, Real Nappies for London was launched by WEN. Waste and recycling officers from 26 London boroughs were involved in the design of this pan-London scheme. The voucher was effectively cash to help with the upfront cost of buying nappies – a proper incentive scheme.

A wash out

However this coincided with the publicity surrounding the Environment Agency’s infamous Nappy Life Cycle Analysis published in 2005. This stated that omitting the factor of land use, washable nappies were just as bad for the environment as disposables.

Whilst those parents who were strongly committed to real nappies were unlikely to be influenced, ‘swing’ real nappy users were a different matter. Some may have been only too happy to be told that there was no environmental benefit to washing nappies, and to the Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association (AHPMA) line that “Parents should feel no guilt, they should just choose the product that best suits their lifestyle.” As with breastfeeding and healthy eating, real nappies must compete with sophisticated nudges from marketing by wealthy multi-nationals pushing consumers towards their products.

Of course, the 2005 report was deeply flawed, and an update in 2008 said that reusables could have up to 40% lower carbon impacts (even leaving aside the issue of waste). Unfortunately there was no industry body to put the case for reusables… The revisions received little media coverage and the myth remains that washable nappies don’t benefit the environment.

A nappy balance

So what has the impact of the incentive and reward schemes been? This is difficult to say. We can measure uptake of voucher easily enough, but not everyone who uses the voucher will use the nappies. Some may still use “disposables” at nights or during the winter months when drying nappies is a challenge. Real Nappies for London (RNfL) estimates that each voucher will result in a 50% reduction in the mass of disposable nappies a household produces: in some cases there will be zero diversion, in others 100%, and in most cases somewhere in between.

RNfL also runs a continuous survey about the extent of ongoing use, but respondents are self-selecting; those who give up are less likely to bother to fill in a questionnaire. At the same time, the voucher scheme doesn’t represent the full extent of the real nappy uptake it helps to promote. There are many pre-loved nappies in circulation, provided by friends, relatives, freecycle or eBay, whose users have no motivation to apply for a voucher.

The average local authority spends £100 per baby on collecting and disposing of nappy waste. London now has a huge diversity of real nappy schemes; some boroughs offer incentives, others rewards, free trial packs, subsidised trial packs, information about real nappies – or nothing at all. Most don’t even have anywhere to see reusables before you buy. Spending a little money on nudging parents to reduce nappy waste by 10% could save a good deal of money, but authorities are reluctant to invest without clear evidence about what works. It’s perfectly set up for a piece of research to investigate the varying impacts of these schemes on the average volume of disposable nappy waste per baby.

Authorities could also benefit from advice on how to structure schemes, taking on board the views and interests of those working in the washable nappy sector and taking care not to unduly distort the market.

While progress on reducing nappy waste seems painfully slow it’s important to remind ourselves that the disposable nappy industry grew its market through constant innovation and competition over several decades. The reusable nappy industry has fought back with products in cutting edge fabrics that increase ease of use and meet the high expectations of today’s new parents but these products are unknown to the vast percentage of expectant parents.

Spending on incentives and rewards was made possible by the Waste Minimisation Act of 1998. They are still the only tool available to local authorities to reduce nappy waste; they are also a fraction of the cost of nappy waste disposal. It’s really not hard to justify a small spend on a smart scheme to help create an environment locally in which washable nappy use can grow to eventually become the norm.