cloth nappies environment monarch

Cloth Nappies vs. Disposables: Environmental Impacts of Nappies

One of the most common reasons for a family to choose to use cloth nappies over disposable nappies is for environmental reasons. But, do cloth nappies really have a minimal impact on the environment? There are lots of things to consider from a sustainability point of view when looking at the environmental impact of choosing between reusable and disposable nappies.

Before we delve into details and specifics, I do want to point out that this isn't a blog post designed to bash disposable nappies. Both types of nappies take up resources and it isn't 'black and white' as to which option is better. All in all, it comes down to what is a priority for each family and what is important to each person.

  1. Raw materials that create nappies
  2. Disposing of nappy
  3. Putting yourself in the driver's seat
  4. Key takeaways about cloth nappies vs. disposables

Raw materials that create nappies

The raw materials that are used to create nappies is obviously a huge factor in how sustainable a nappy is. No matter which nappy you choose, it's undeniable that nappies take a lot of resources to produce. The biggest difference between cloth and disposables is the fact that one is made from renewable sources (and therefore generally recyclable) and the other isn't.

Cloth nappies are made from plant sources such as cotton, bamboo and hemp which are both renewable and sustainable whereas disposables are made from non renewable sources - it is estimated that each disposable nappy requires 1 cup (250mL) of crude oil to create. When you think about what that adds up to, from birth to toilet training, that's a pretty substantial amount of non-renewable material that is tossed into the bin every day.

However, a common argument in response to this, against cloth nappies, is the amount of water it can take to grow the crops and other resources needed to create the nappy and inserts themselves. And while it is true that cotton and bamboo are quite water hungry crops, in reality only a very small percentage of all these crops end up as cloth nappies.

The University of Queensland completed a Life Cycle Assessment comparing water usage of cloth nappies and disposables and found that the production AND cleaning of cloth nappies was the same as the production of disposable nappies. While this sounds a bit alarming, the same study also found that disposables used MORE energy and land in their production and that disposable nappies created about 20 times more solid waste in landfill. 

Disposing of nappy

This is where the biggest difference lies in determining a nappy's impact on the environment. While cloth nappies need to be washed and dried every use, disposables are simply thrown away and end up in landfill. This in turn creates potentially hazardous issues for our planet. An estimated 3.75 million disposable nappies end up in landfill every day in Australia and New Zealand.

None of these nappies can be recycled so they all end up in landfill. Every disposable nappy ever thrown in the bin is still sitting at a rubbish tip somewhere as scientists hypothesise that disposable nappies take around 500 years to break down, and that is with access to oxygen and sunshine to help break it down. Landfill is generally buried, meaning that the decomposition process could take even longer.

Disposable nappies place a large strain on landfill sites across Australia. For example, approximately 15 million nappies go into landfill in Canberra each year. The other issue with disposable nappies in landfill is that they have the potential to contaminate groundwater with bacteria causing public health problems. Even with disposables, solids should be flushed down the toilet so they can be processed and treated at wastewater facilities but this isn't common knowledge nor is it a common practise for people to do this. 

Putting yourself in the driver's seat

Choosing cloth over disposables also gives you more control over your impact on the environment. There are a lot of choices you can make that will lessen the amount of energy and water used on your nappies:

  • Type of Washing Machine: Using a front loader over a top loader. Front loaders are more energy and water efficient than a top loader.
  • Full Wash Loads: Full loads of nappies and baby clothes. Not only will your nappies and clothes be cleaner due to correct loading and agitation, you'll also be saving water and electricity by only running your machine once it's full. 
  • Detergent Choice: Choice over the type of detergent you use. This may mean different things to different people. You may value plant-based detergents over more mainstream ones, some people may consider packaging or transport miles or it could be about choosing a detergent that allows you to buy in bulk. 
  • Solar vs Dryer: Line drying nappies instead of using a dryer. Unless you have solar power, drying your nappies on the clothesline is the most environmentally-friendly way. 
  • 1+ Children: Using cloth nappies on multiple children. Rather than using once and discarding, cloth nappies can be used for multiple children meaning that the initial use of raw materials will go further. Once your children have been toilet trained, you can always pass on your nappies to another family or recycle it in textiles recycling, reducing landfill. 
  • Reusable Wipes: Use reusable cloth wipes and ditch the 'flushable' liners. Very rarely do the liners actually break down in our waste water system, instead they are responsible for blockages in our pipes and can create 'fatbergs' in the sewer system. In fact, during February to May last year, fatbergs cost WA authorities $3.3 million to clear. 
  • Recycling Water: Reducing water usage in other ways can help offset the amount of water it takes to clean your cloth nappies. Saving and reusing bath and shower water for your prewash, limiting shower length, even reducing the amount of times you flush the toilet a day can all help you save water.

Key takeaways about cloth nappies vs. disposables

Ultimately, there are a lot of decisions to be made when you become a parent and everyone just wants to do the best for their child. This blog is in no way standing in judgment of the choices people make when deciding what to use as a nappy for their child. Rather, hopefully, it can be used as an informative tool to help people in making that choice.

Obviously, I'm a little biased and cloth nappies have been used by my family for the past 18 months. But honestly, the big kicker for us was that we were sick of a stinky bin full of nappies and my research into other environmental impacts came later.

Something to remember when it comes to cloth nappies is that it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Every cloth nappy used is one disposable nappy saved from landfill.