Washable nappies are generally thought to be better for the environment than their disposable counterparts. However, many parents and nappy manufacturers may argue that the cost of laundering these nappies outweighs the more obvious advantages of reducing landfill. A report by the Environment Agency published in 2008 provides detailed models of the total environmental impact of both types of nappy, concentrating principally on their energy cost and production of carbon dioxide.
Environmental costs of washing nappies
In the developed world, the overwhelming majority of parents using cloth nappies will wash their nappies using an electric washing machine, and some will also use a tumble dryer. Energy consumption by these appliances constitutes a major part of the total environmental impact of using cloth nappies. The estimated global warming impact of using cloth nappies is 570kg per child, but this figure varies hugely depending on laundering methods used. This compares with 550kg per child for disposable nappies.
Water consumption is also likely to increase in households using cloth nappies. Taking into account the water required for irrigation of cotton fields and the water for laundering, if all children in the UK used reusable nappies the total nationwide increase in water demands would be less than 1%.
There are also environmental costs related to sewage treatment, as when using cloth nappies much of the faeces will end up in the sewage system, together with any flushable liners used. Use of detergents in the washing machine will also be increased.
Manufacture and disposal of cloth nappies
There are manufacture and disposal energy costs for both cloth and disposable nappies. However, at an average of 4 000 nappies per child, the sheer number of disposables needed means that manufacture and disposal costs of disposable nappies far exceeds that of their cloth counterparts.
Modern cloth nappy systems generally consist of an absorbent part and a waterproof outer layer or wrap. The absorbent part is usually made of a natural and biodegradable material like cotton or bamboo, but may also be made of micro-fibre or fleece. The wrap is more often made of a plastic material which may not be biodegradable.
Disposable nappies are made almost entirely from non-renewable raw materials, and many of the chemicals which make up the nappy are not biodegradable. We do not know how long these nappies will take to rot in landfill, but estimates suggest they may take up to 500 years.
Manufacture and disposal costs of cloth nappies can be greatly reduced by buying second hand nappies, and passing old nappies on to other parents when they are finished with.
Are cloth nappies better for the environment than disposables?
There is no doubt that disposable nappies have a significantly higher impact with regards to waste management than cloth nappies; but the comparison of energy costs is less straightforward. The Environment Agency report suggests that the total energy cost of both types of nappy is broadly similar, but this is based on speculations about laundry choices, including the assumption that a tumble dryer will be used.
In reality, whilst the environmental impact of disposable nappies is relatively constant, the impact of cloth nappies can vary quite considerably depending on the choices made by individual parents. Thus, choosing cloth nappies provides the opportunity for parents to significantly reduce their environmental impact.
How to minimise the environmental impact of cloth nappies
There are a number of ways the environmentally responsible parent can reduce the impact of their use of cloth nappies on the environment. The Environment Agency report suggested that favourable choices could reduce the energy cost of cloth nappies by up to 40%.
By choosing an energy efficient washing machine, energy can be saved on every wash. The most energy efficient washing machines use 1.00kWh per load, compared with 1.61kWh for the least efficient models. Similarly, the water consumption of the least efficient machines, at 163 litres for a typical wash, is three times that of the most efficient (53 litres).
Choosing to line dry nappies rather than using a tumble drier can also significantly reduce the environmental impact of cloth nappies. Line drying outside is the most desirable method, as the sunshine also helps to bleach the nappies and remove stains. However, if weather conditions do not allow it is also good to dry them on a rack inside, if you have enough room. Choosing a quicker drying nappy may help: cotton nappies tend to dry quicker than bamboo (Real Nappy Campaign), and prefold or terry squares tend to be better in this respect than shaped nappies.
Finally, recycling cloth nappies can minimise their manufacture and eventual disposal costs. Second hand nappies can be purchased from a variety of sources such as The Used Nappy Company, and when the last child has been potty trained, old nappies can be sold, donated or passed on to other parents.
Environment Agency Report 2008 ISBN 978-1-84432-927-4. \”An Updated Lifestyle Assessment Study for Disposable and Reusable Nappies\”