Choosing reusable nappies

Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

Reduce emissions from your baby's emissions

A collective sigh of parental relief was heard when the Environment Agency claimed disposable nappies were no worse for the climate than reusable ones. But was this nappy report a bit rash?

Parents have been seeking the bottom line on nappies for decades. While disposable plastic nappies are the largest single-item contributor to our landfills (where they emit greenhouse gas), reusable cotton ones require regular energy intensive hot washes.

In truth, neither is actually a blessing for the climate - but reusable nappies appear to be about 10% less damaging all in all. Then again, might the real secret be to get your kids out of nappies sooner?

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Photo: Choosing reusable nappies

Saves about 60kg of CO2 a year

176 Bloomers are doing this

CO2 reduction 1 out of 5

Cheapness 4 out of 5

Popularity 3 out of 5

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How will it make a difference?

  • According to a report commissioned by the Environment Agency, a reusable nappy is responsible for 560kg of greenhouse gas over the baby's first two and half years of life, whereas a disposable nappy is responsible for 630kg. (That's equivalent to an average car driven 1800 miles)
  • Dispensing with disposables in the UK would stop almost six million nappies a day, or two billion nappies a year, ending up in landfill where they emit methane, a greenhouse gas. Nappies account for 2% of all household rubbish, and cost the council tax payer 67m a year
  • A weight of disposable nappies equivalent to 70,000 double-decker buses go to landfill every year - enough buses to stretch from London to Edinburgh
  • Disposable nappy use creates about 400,000 tonnes of waste each year in the UK - the rough equivalent of the waste produced by a city the size of Birmingham
  • Opting for reusable nappies can save a bundle of cash - in fact, choosing reusables over disposables can halve the amount of cash the average British parent spends on nappies according to WRAP. (See What's Stopping Me?) Read the BBC article

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What's the debate?

Pub Fact

  • The average baby can get through 4,000 disposable nappies pre-potty
  • Before your baby becomes potty-trained, over 250 litres of urine (and 100kg of faecal matter) will have been produced
  • The average baby (pre-potty training) can out-emit the equivalent of a gas-guzzling car driven about 2000 miles just through nappy use
  • Statistically, girls are more likely to 'graduate' from nappies first
  • An American Express survey of over 1,000 British parents estimated that babies cost about 3,600 in their first year
  • The average baby uses 4,000 nappies in its first two-and-a-half years

Reusable vs. disposable

Supporters of disposable nappies cite the Environment Agency's (2005) report, Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK, which found reusable nappies were not much better for the climate than disposable nappies because of the energy demands of keeping them hygienically clean. But the report's research methods, say the Women's Environmental Network (WEN), were 'seriously flawed'. The WEN claims that if cotton nappies are washed as the manufacturers recommend, at 50-60C in an energy-efficient machine, they have a lower climate impact than disposables. Whether or not this makes a difference in reality remains to be seen.

Nappies of the future

Disposable nappies are a high-energy patchwork of super-absorbent polymers, polypropylene, adhesives, elastics and pulp, often sourced from unsustainably logged forests. But surely, you'd think, shrewd manufacturers will meet the need for eco-friendly disposables? Well, up to a point - the last 15 years have seen a 40% reduction in the volume of material used in their manufacture, but the addition of absorbent plastic gels to the mix has actually reduced their biodegradability. (On the other hand, reusable nappies rely on cotton, a high-maintenance crop that soaks up fertiliser, water and pesticides.)

What about biodegradable nappies?

Given that nappies can take more than 500 years to degrade in landfill, you would think that a 'biodegradable' nappy (one which degrades much faster) would be a brilliant idea. There's no doubt that biodegradable nappies are more environmentally-friendly - but critics say that they are worse for the climate than conventional disposables. When organic stuff rots it produces methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times worse than CO2. According to Chris Goodall, the author of How to Live a Low Carbon Life, this makes biodegradable waste much worse for the climate than non-biodegradable waste. That said, biodegradable nappies often contain sustainable wood pulp and other environmentally-friendly materials.

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What's stopping me?

"Aren't reusable nappies a bit messy and awkward to use?"

Not really. The modern nappy is shaped, fitted and fastened without the need for pins - and comes with a biodegradable liner that can be removed and flushed down the loo.

"I heard reusable nappies are bad for my baby's health"

Both types have their problems. Resuable nappies can become unhygienic without regular, hot washes, whereas plastic disposable nappies may raise scrotal temperatures, potentially leading to poor male reproductive health later in life. Contrary to popular opinion, resuable nappies are no more likely than disposables to give your baby nappy rash - in fact, WRAP advises that the frequency with which nappies are changed is much more important. For more info, read this article in Archives of Disease in Childhood.

"Disposables are cheaper"

Not true. While the initial outlay for cloth nappies can seem expensive, they work out much cheaper in the long run compared to disposables. In fact, WRAP estimates that parents who choose reusable nappies end up paying less than half as much as parents who choose disposables: 270 on average instead of 600. And reusable nappies save you even more cash if you have a second child. (Read our Strange but True article on the climate impact of having another child.)

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How do I do it?

  • Try biodegradable liners. That way you can wash the nappy at 40C, or even 30C like the rest of your clothes. Without liners, it's best to wash at 60C to get rid of bacteria. According to WRAP, there is no need to soak or pre-wash nappies
  • Wash nappies in a bigger load and use an A-rated machine
  • Line-dry your nappies
  • Try to do your own washing. Research suggests that service-laundered washables produce more emissions than either home-laundered washable nappies or disposables over the first two-and-a-half years of the baby's life
  • Try to potty-train your baby as soon as possible. Girls have the edge from an eco perspective as statistics suggest they 'grow out' of nappies before boys

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Claire, Bristol 2009-06-18

My children are long out of nappies but I used biodegradable disposables at the time. I felt these were an easier way of doing my bit for the environment and was slightly daunted by the seemingly comlicated real nappy systems. Now though re-usable nappies are very easy to use, can be washed at low temperatures and dry quickly on the line or indoors. If I had my time again, I would choose all in one pocket nappies for everyday and go the extra mile with organic cotton shaped nappies for 'special days'! Probably a few biodegradable ones wouldn't hurt in your bag when on the move. All the accessories like biodegradable nappy sacks, nappy liners and organic baby wipes are also easily available. I love the fact that parents are reusing the pre-loved nappies on 2nd children and passing them on to new mums. It's not difficult any more. The less chemicals used, the more we re-use and the less energy consumed in drying all add up to environmentally friendly babies!

Jackie, Oxford 2008-10-08

I use cloth nappies on my baby girl. I wash at 30 or 40 degrees (depending on the soiling) and line dry whenever the weather will allow. If you choose your nappies carefully then they're as easy to use as disposables.

Margaret, Liverpool UK 2008-06-26

I use cloth nappies on my son who is 18months old and I find it easier and less hassle than using disposibles. I do a nappy wash every 2 days, mainly at 40 with a 60 wash every couple of weeks or if I happen to have loads of pooy ones. I use eco-balls which means no exact nasty chemicals being used. I line dry my nappies and never tumble dry. We are also planning another child so they will be used again on the next one. Once they are finished with I will either sell them on or give them away for someone else to use. My son is also showing signs of nearing potty training so will be out of nappies sooner than my older son who was in disposibles until he was also 3 years old. So using cloth saves me money and in my opinion better for the evironment.

Joanne, Cardiff 2008-05-21

I used cloth nappies on my little girl, so long as I kept in a routine it was easy. (Except on long days out or when camping - we used disposables then.) Flush the liner, soak the nappy, machine wash every few days and line dry. My childminder was willing to use them and *less* nappy rash too.

Jeanne, Oxford/UK 2008-05-13

Years ago I just soaked the nappies in a Nappisan solution, which disinfected them. Then only cold rinsing was necessary, hot washing only once a month for appearance. Is this still an option? I never hear about it now in articles doing comparisons. Is there any research on the environmental impact of the chemicals in products like Nappisan (a disinfectant powder)? With line-drying, there was very little energy use. Disposable liners were a good idea, being about the size of a tissue and keeping the cloth nappy fairly clean. Also good were 'Marathon' cloth liners which allowed moisture through and kept the baby drier. I used both, and it worked very well.

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Glossary terms used on this page
Organic matter that can break down or decompose rapidly under natural conditions and processes is referred to as biodegradable. Garden and food waste, animal waste, and most paper products, as well as plastics derived from vegetable content, will biodegrade, but not plastic carrier bags and polystyrene cups, for example.
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Eco-friendly, or environmentally friendly, is a term applied to goods, services, processes or people deemed to do minimal harm to the environment. The term is shorthand for 'ecologically friendly', ecology being the study of the relationships between living organisms and their environment.
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Energy intensive
An energy-intensive process uses a great deal of energy - and therefore produces high emissions - relative to its useful output. As an example, beef production, has recently been cited as an especially energy-intensive industry, while tumble dryers are energy-intensive appliances. Products that are manufactured in an energy-intensive way are also said to be 'emissions heavy'.
Greenhouse gases
Greenhouse gases raise the earth's temperature through the greenhouse effect. There are six main examples. As well as carbon dioxide, they include: water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and CFCs (which include sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs). Of these, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs are controlled under the Kyoto Protocol to limit their concentration in the atmosphere. The heat warming capacity of each gas is measured by its 'global warming potential': how much heat it traps depends on its chemical make-up and how long it stays in the atmosphere.
Landfill is disposal of rubbish by burying it under the ground.
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Sustainability - whether applied to energy, technology, industry, agriculture or just consumption of resources in general - refers to the concept of using things at a rate that, while meeting our own needs, does not compromise future generations' ability to meet theirs. In environmental terms, a process or industry is unsustainable when it requires natural resources to be used up faster than they can be replenished. navigation


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