Every now and again we read in the newspaper that "the great nappy debate" was not decided yet and that life cycle analyses of cloth nappies (diapers) and disposable nappies showed they had a similar impact. I was always wondering about this, but as I was using disposable nappies with my first two kids, it seemed a good enough argument to defend using disposables.
With baby number three we are now using cloth nappies and I decided to have a closer look at the research into their environmental credentials. After reading a recent newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald, I realised that the research quoted by the SMH was based on a range of assumptions that seemed somehow skewed in favour of disposable nappies, namely
- people will buy new cloth nappies for each child so there is significant impact from the production of those nappies; and
- people will soak the nappies in huge amounts of water, then wash them in great, inefficient washing machines at very high temperatures with copious amounts of bleach, followed by drying them in an electric dryer. This would result in a high use of water, energy and chemicals.
Neither of those assumptions have to be true. For example, the nappies I use I inherited. I think ours might be the third or fourth baby using them, and they will be good for at least another baby or two after we are through with them!
It further seems to me that the main difference between disposables and cloth nappies is that with disposables, there is little the end-consumer can do to reduce their impact - apart from maybe leaving the poor little ones longer in their soiled nappies, which is not really a solution. However, with cloth nappies, parents can make a big difference in the way they treat their nappies. Here are my experiences in dealing with dirty nappies:
It is absolutely no problem to "dry stack" nappies in a bucket with a lid until they get washed. Heavily soiled nappies can be cleaned with a squirt of water in the toilet.
Unless the baby had some gastric problem, 60 degrees Celsius is perfectly sufficient to clean most nappies. There is no need to use bleach or any other special detergent, just standard washing powder will do. One can also wash other clothes (eg underwear etc) in the same wash to fill up the machine.
I use simple, old-fashioned terry towelling nappies which dry very quickly so there is absolutely no need for a dryer. In fact, hanging nappies out into the sun to dry helps to kill the last germs.
I have about one and a half to two extra loads of washing a week because of using cloth nappies. That adds up to between 60 and 120 litres of water a week. Given that a single 8-minute shower uses around 70-80 litres, I don't think that washing nappies uses all that much water in comparison!
So if cloth nappies are supposed to be on par with disposables when treated in the outrageously profligate manner assumed as the basis for the comparison, surely second hand cloth nappies treated in a more frugal way must come out way ahead in the life cycle comparison. In fact, according to the UK Women's Environmental Network (WEN) using cloth nappies in a sensible way leads to a 24 per cent reduction in the impact on climate change compared to disposables.
Overall, using cloth nappies is a complete no-brainer. It is easy once one has set one's mind to using them, it is much cheaper than disposables and I believe the environmental debate is clearly won.