Nappies are an inescapable necessity of early childhood. But the sheer volume of landfill waste they create is obscene. Not to mention their carbon footprint.
We could all use reusable cloth nappies. Yet these still suck up energy and water through constant washing and drying, plus they’re messy and time-consuming.
What’s a parent to do for the best? We look at some of the options available.
The Cost of Disposable Nappies
Disposable nappies are convenient, clean and make life much easier for new parents. But this comes at a cost.
Babies use 4-5000 nappies in their lifetime, which equates to around 3% of our total landfill. That’s a huge amount of waste. It’s made worse by their decomposition rate, which is estimated to take up to 500 years. To put that in context, if Henry VIII wore disposable nappies, his would be just about decomposed by now.
Of course there’s a financial cost too. Disposable nappies are convenient, and thus expensive. Budgeting parents are only too aware of the high cost of nappies, which has in part led to a resurgence of more traditional cloth nappies.
Environmentally-conscious parents and local authorities are attempting to reduce landfill and hit recycling targets. Yet, old-style cloth nappies may not be all they seem.
Are Cloth Nappies a Bum Deal?
Cloth nappies are washable cloth inserts that fit inside a liner to keep mess contained.
There’s no landfill waste from cloth nappies and there is an obvious financial incentive. They are reusable to the extent that you can use them on a second or even a third child. Some companies even sell second hand cloth nappies.
The problem is they require a lot of water and energy. An Environment Agency report from 2008 said the usage is equal to, if not worse than, the environmental cost of disposable nappies. How can that be?
Because of all the washing and drying involved. The EA report worked out a carbon emission figure, based on washing cloth nappies at 60 degrees and tumble drying one load out of four.
Cloth nappies might seem like a more environmentally sound choice. However according to their carbon emissions score, the way we wash and dry reusable nappies has the potential to wipe out their benefits.
How Can I Stay Sane and Environmentally Friendly?
There are some ways you can use nappies more sustainably – no matter your preferred method for containing the 24-hour deluge of bodily waste from your tiny person.
#1 Mix and Match
Try cloth nappies at home but use disposables if you’re out for the day, you’ve had a bad night or you’re not feeling your best. If you’re struggling with the washable type, then it makes sense to stick to using disposables nappies.
All parents are just trying to make it through with their sanity and wallet intact. Try your best, but don’t feel bad if it doesn’t work out the way you wanted.
#2 Try Environmentally Friendly Disposable Nappies
ECO nappies come with other sustainability benefits too. They’re made in a way that has a lower environmental impact, with fewer plastics and more renewable materials. Some parents say the lack of chemicals and plastics make ECO nappies a better choice, especially for sensitive skin.
#3 Change Your Washing Habits
The main problem with cloth nappies in regards to environmental damage is the constant washing. However you can wash cloth nappies on cold or a low heat with an energy efficient washing machine to cut down on use.
It’s a step change from our usual tactic of washing everything hot. But unless the nappy is a real stinker they should come up clean.
Drying nappies is a pain, particularly in winter. Make full use of radiators and the airing cupboard, and line dry whenever you can. Buying in more nappies will help too, so you’re not constantly washing them in a rush.
It’s a Balancing Act
Ultimately, parenthood is a balancing act, and you need to choose whichever option fits best with your lifestyle and values. For example, if you use lots of disposable nappies, you might offset them with biodegradable wipes (just don’t flush them!).
Environmentally friendly disposable nappies may be the way forward, but it’ll take pressure on big companies and changes in buying habits to make it happen. It’s not impossible though. Just look what occurred when we had to start paying for our carrier bags – usage dropped by 80%!
Perhaps sustainable, biodegradable nappies should be the next big waste challenge for us to tackle.