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Reusable Nappies vs Disposable Nappies: Eco benefits

In the second part of our blog series around the advantages of cloth nappies vs reusable, we're going to look at the environmental impact of choosing cloth or reusable nappies over traditional disposable nappies.  And we're not going to just blast you with our opinions because yep, we are totally biased and we LOVE our cloth nappies, but we're going to point you to some independent research from scientists and researchers who really know their stuff.

Disposable nappies create sh!tloads of waste.  Literally.

Zero Waste Europe, in their research on single use menstrual products, wipes and nappies,  estimate that in 2017 that 6.7 million tonnes of single-use nappies were generated in the EU. Which is a staggering amount. According to accepted statistics, the average weight of each of these nappies is around 200g (after being used).

They obviously haven't met any of my children who have poo-producing superpowers.  :-)

Each child can therefore be assumed to produce 438kg of dirty nappies annually - meaning that using disposable nappies creates around 1 tonne of waste for each child after two and a half years.

To put this into perspective, that's the weight of a walrus. Or a 1979 Volkswagen Beetle.  And this has to be disposed of, by your local council.  Either into landfill or by incineration.  Which is yet another hidden cost, snuggled within your council tax bill.

In the EU alone, that equates to 5.5 million tonnes of waste every single year.  But scarily, that isn't actually the worst thing (from an eco perspective) about disposable nappies.  Again, the people at Zero Waste Europe produce the facts for us.

Disposable nappies gobble up our planets resources like a pregnant lady with Ben and Jerry's

Again, referring back to the research from Zero Waste Europe, production of disposable nappies means using large volumes of wood pulp, cotton, viscose rayon, the production of super absorbent polymer (SAP), and other components such as polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene, adhesives, and dyes. It takes over 1,500 litres of crude oil to produce enough single-use nappies for a newborn baby until they become potty trained (at 2.5 years).    

Wood pulp production can be a source of deforestation, soil impoverishment, which can lead to high depletion of natural resources. Manufacturing wood pulp is highly water intensive and creates even more waste that needs to be treated onsite. To cap it all off, the wood pulp is often washed with bleach (chlorine or peroxide) to make it suitable for use. The use of single-use nappies by an average child over two and a half years would result in a global warming impact of approximately 550 kg of CO2 equivalents.


So how are reusable nappies better for the environment?  Surely by the time you take into account washing them etc, there's not much in it?

Some of the data relating to the eco-impact of using cloth nappies is a bit out of date.  (I'm looking at YOU, Environment agency) because it assumes that people wash at 60c, which just isn't necessary and isn't something we recommend. In addition, the production of all fabric, both bamboo and cotton, is not a clean process.  But producing 10 or 15 cloth nappies compared to 5000 disposable nappies is obviously a HUGE difference. And washing nappies uses energy for both washing machines and tumble dyers, and lots of water.  The environment agency reckoned (back in 2008 when washing machines were a LOT less water efficient) that if every baby in the UK switched to reusable nappies our water usage would go up by 1%.  Nowadays, that would probably be a lot less, but still, compared to the amount of CO2 created by disposables in production alone, reusables come out on top.

The carbon footprint of a nappy can be reduced by 40%, equivalent to some 200kg of CO2 equivalents, over the two and a half years, by swapping to reusables.

It's possible to massively reduce your eco impact by:

  • washing your cloth nappies at 40c

  • line-drying where possible (and who doesn't love seeing their cloth nappies on the washing line on a breezy day)

  • using for more than one child

  • selling your used nappies onwards / buying pre-loved

We use 'eco' disposable nappies. Which is fine, right?

We aren't here to beat you with the big green 'judgy' stick. Not our bag, baby. But be aware of 'green-washing'.

Some producers have been introducing new ‘plant-based’ plastic, or 'bio' plastic which many people mistakenly confuse as a biodegradable or compostable alternative to plastic. This can potentially be misleading as people get confused between 'plant-based/bio' materials, and 'biodegradable' ones.

Bio-based plastics are plastics made partly or fully from organic matter from plants and animals (such as sugar, starch, animal waste etc), often in combination with fossil fuels. Bio-based doesn't equal biodegradable. Actually less than 40% of bio-based plastics are designed to be biodegradable, which means that most of bio-based plastics are designed to behave as conventional plastics, and will end up in landfill or being incinerated.

And while we are talking biodegradable, “biodegradability”, is often wrongly used for describing very different realities. Most products labelled as such do not actually decompose or biodegrade, anywhere in the natural environment, or at home compost as often claimed. In reality, these products usually break down very slowly, and most of them actually end up in the bin and finally in a landfill or incinerator.

For most people, the eco-benefits of switching to cloth or reusable nappies are just the icing on the cake.  The cherry on top, when you consider that you'll save money by switching to reusable nappies and that they're better for your baby too.

Win, win.