The Great Nappy Debate: Cloth vs. Disposable

In her book The Zero Footprint Baby, Keya Chatterjee explains:

“Unlike other household choices, there is no way for diapering to play a positive role in addressing climate change and reducing consumption… when you are diapering you have no choice but to use more energy than you did before having a child.”

Since they first emerged in 1961, disposable nappies have grown immensely in popularity, with 95% of Australian parents using disposable nappies exclusively or in conjunction with cloth nappies. In Australia 2 billion nappies make their way to landfill every year, that’s 5.6 million nappies per day! This equates to about 2% of total landfill waste. Just think, this is only in Australia, where, in relative terms we have low population density. Americans use more than 10 times the amount of disposable nappies we do (approx 27 billion per year).

nappeis

1 year’s worth of disposables versus 1 – 3 years worth of reuseable cloth nappies (which can be used for multiple children so potentially up to 6-9 years worth). Photo credit: http://www.babyology.com.au

Nappy Types

Before I go any further, I think I need to start with a quick description of the types of nappies available today, as there is a plethora and it can get pretty confusing pretty quickly:

Cloth

  • Prefolds and flats – the original old skool nappy. They are basically a square or rectangle piece of cloth, usually cotton, that you fold origami style into the shape of a nappy. You then use either safety pins or snappis to fasten the nappy. Over the top goes a water proof/resistant cover like a pair of undies. These are usually made from plastic or wool. These are the ones I grew up wearing. These are a cheap and fast drying option although pose a little more work in th ‘prefolding’.
  • All in one (AIO) – exactly as it title says, they are the same shape as disposables but the outer waterproof cover is attached to the inner absorbent lining. Probably the most expensive and take the longest to dry, but they are touted as the most convenient of the cloth nappies.
  • Pocket – these are similar to the AIO but the absorbent lining is removable to allow for quicker drying time. They are usually a little cheaper than the AIO’s but are a little more work. The outside pocket is usually made from polyurethane laminate (PUL), a type of plastic applied to the fabric to make it waterproof. These are the ones we ended up with.
  • Hybrid – these nappies usually have a reuseable plastic outer shell and either a reuseable or disposable insert (like a sanitary pad).

nappy tree

Clear as mud right?! Photo credit: http://www.alittledancer.blogspot.com 

Disposable

Most disposable nappies are made from plastic and sodium polyacrylate (SAP) – a super absorbent salt that looks like gel and a list of other chemicals. It is estimated disposable nappies will take 200 – 500 years to decompose in landfill, although this is projected as disposables have only been available commercially for 60 years… so every nappy ever made is still in existence.

Eco Disposables

Eco disposables are nappies made from biodegradable and compostable materials, usually free from chemicals and fragrances. These nappies are designed to breakdown in landfill quicker than regular disposables (although I couldn’t find an estimated time frame during my research efforts but as I now know, landfill’s do not provide the right conditions for natural materials to break down properly). Most are partly made from materials such as wood pulp, bamboo, corn starch, compostable SAP, resin wax and paper. Eco nappies are usually more expensive than their plastic cousins. Brands such as Ecoriginals contain at least 80% biodegradable materials and 100% compostable packaging.

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Cloth vs. Disposable

The answer to this isn’t actually as straight forward as you would think. It depends greatly on what the nappy is made from and how you care for your cloth nappies at home. The environmental impacts of disposables come from how they are manufactured and disposed of, whereas the environmental impacts of cloth come from how they are laundered.

A study from the University of Queensland on the life-cycle assessment of reuseable versus disposable nappies found;

“home-washed reusable nappies have the potential for the least environmental impact if washed in a water-efficient front loading washing machine in cold water, and line-dried.”

However, when not following through with those practices, cloth nappies have the potential to have the same carbon costs as disposables, when taking into account cradle to grave. A study by the UK Environment Agency found, disposables used for 2.5 years would contribute 550kg of carbon dioxide equilivants, while cloth nappies washed in warm water, with average efficiency appliances and dried using an electric dryer would contribute 570kg of carbon dioxide equilivants. If best practices are applied, cloth nappies can be as little as 300kg of carbon dioxide equilivants over the 2.5 year period.

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Hmmm… this is as confusing as trying to understand blockchain in a one paragraph spiel.

So cloth are better for the environment but only if you follow some or all of these rules:

  • wash in cold water
  • line dry
  • use energy-efficient appliances
  • generate your own renewable energy
  • use the cloth nappies for 2 or more babies
  • wash with a full load
  • purchase second hand nappies
  • toilet train as early as possible
  • if buying new, avoid synthetic fibres as they will shed and add to microplastic pollution in the ocean – best is organic cotton, hemp, wool and bamboo

Elimination Communication

Overall the most environmentally friendly option is elimination communication (EC), where cues, timing, signals and intuition are used to teach babies to pee and poop into a potty or toilet. Parents learn to work with babies digestive schedules and include a lot of nappy free time so they can feel when they are eliminating their waste. EC is best practiced from an early age, before babies are mobile, with the optimum window being between birth to 4 months old.

Cost

The Rouge Ginger (Melbourne zero waster) worked out that if she had purchased disposables from birth to 2.5/3 years old the total cost would be approximately $2800 – $3000 (this would be for the mid range brands at $0.30 a nappy), while the cost of cloth is approximately $1050 (although this greatly depends on brands of nappy and detergent used and could be higher).


Our nappy story

When I was pregnant with Peanut I assumed cloth nappies were miles ahead of disposables in the eco stakes. I didn’t do any research into this and went ahead and purchased 30 modern cloth nappies (MCN) in the pocket style, extra inserts and flushable nappy liners. The outer covers are PUL, polyester and microfiber, the inserts are bamboo charcoal fleece and while the flushable liners are 100% bamboo.

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Our nappy stash

When Peanut was born we’d be given some disposable nappies (Ecoriginals) as a gift, which was a good thing as the nappies I had purchased we’re an adjustable size but didn’t quite adjust small enough to fit her little body. After a couple of weeks constantly hanging of the ‘boob’ as she now refers to it, she quickly grew into them.

I used our cloth nappies about 90% of the time, with the exception of short holidays and occasionally when out and about. Then when she hit 1 they started leaking All.The.Time – which was especially infuriating at night when I had to get everyone out of bed (dad, baby, mum and even the dog) to change the sheets. She had also developed a very stubborn nappy rash that I couldn’t seem to cure with the many creams prescribed by the doctor. I threw in the proverbial towel (nappy), and went full disposable for 5 months, using a mix of brands including eco and regular.

Funnily enough we had no more leaks and the rash went away.

Towards the end of last year, and just before starting this blog, I got a bad case of the ecoguilts about our nappy situation. I sought help from friends and family that use MCN and stumbled across a magical site called Clean Cloth Nappies Down Under (CCNDU). It was here I discovered I’d been cloth nappying all wrong. My wash routine was abysmal and in fact the cause of the leaking nappies and the rash to go with it.

What had happened over time, due to my poor cleaning routine, was a build up of detergent (causing leaks) and bacteria (causing rash). So I promptly completed a strip and sanitise and followed the CCNDU washing guidelines with precision. Volia! The rash went away and the nappies stopped leaking – provided I changed them every 2 to 3 hours. I continued to use eco disposables overnight – even with extra bulk added to the nappy, they still leaked.

And so that brings us to today – where in a perfect world Peanut would be toilet trained instead of screaming “No No No NO NOOOO” and vehemently shaking her head and hands in protest when I approach her in the act of poopin’ (Dear Peanut of 2030, I’m sorry I’ve embarrassed future you, love Mum).

Nappy Audit

By following the CCNDU routine I’m sitting somewhere in the middle of potential environmental impact. I do a pre-wash every day (4-6 nappies) in our efficient front loader on 40 degrees, followed by a full wash every 2 – 3 days of all the pre-washed nappies plus any other clothing I can fit in on a long cycle of 40-60 degrees (I do the 60 degrees when there are a few poopy ones). We line dry them – which is a slow process in winter but relative quick in summer. We are contributing to microfiber pollution as the outer shells are made of synthetic fibres, but less so because we use a front loader rather than a top – I figure the alternative is thousands of plastic nappies sitting in landfill for 500 years. The nappies will be good for at least 1 more child, if not 2 or 3 and I will ensure they find a loving home after we are done.

Washing in cold water without a pre-wash caused the leaking and rash issues for us and it is therefore not an option to go back to that routine even if it is the most environmentally friendly. I’m happy to pay the extra for eco disposables for overnight, even if, worst case scenario I’m being greenwashed and the only real benefit is the compostable packaging.

Now that I’m a wannabe zero waster I’m happy with our decision to go cloth although, in retrospect, I should have purchased nappies made from natural fibres and secondhand to decrease the environmental impact. If I were to do it again I would possibly try the prefolds with a wool cover and work harder at getting the night nappy right. Or I could have gone full hunter gatherer and tried elimination communication…. but that seems unlikely as most days in those early months I struggled to shower myself let alone hang Peanut over the toilet for half the day.

 

5 thoughts on “The Great Nappy Debate: Cloth vs. Disposable”

  1. I always used the wool liner, and occasionally as an inner – it washes easily – with the cloth nappies. Something my grand-nan showed me (1905 born), so what’s old is new again.

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      1. Sometimes research isn’t as valuable as the old ladies chit-chat! I’d never seen nor heard of the woolies until Nan mentioned them.

        Like

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