A staggering 3.75 million disposable nappies are used each day in Australia and New Zealand, and it takes about one cup of crude oil to make each nappy. This is a lot of landfill, with conventional disposable nappies estimated to take up to 150 years to break down.
Both disposable and cloth nappies have an impact on the environment. Millions of disposable nappies end up in landfill every day, and their manufacture uses finite resources and contributes to global warming. The impact of cloth nappies is mostly a result of the detergents, water and energy used to rinse, wash and dry them, but overall they tend to be the more environmentally friendly option if they are line dried and washed in full loads.
Making the switch from disposables to modern cloth nappies has been made easier by a wider range of readily available cloth nappies, many with convenient cleaning methods, highly absorbent liners and creative designs. The modern versions are easy to put on and take off, and some say they are more absorbent and smell less than disposable nappies.
Biodegradable disposable nappies – made from a range of materials and using a non-chemical absorption method – are also available. These nappies are better for the environment than standard disposable nappies, but still take many years to break down in landfill.
Overall, cloth nappies tend to be the more environmentally friendly option.
Remember that the sustainability of cloth nappies will also depend on how you use them – 'flushable liners' can wreak havoc on our waterways and add to landfill, as do wet wipes.
Although the purchase price of cloth nappies tends to be higher, using one set of cloth or reusable nappies with machine washing and line-drying will cost about half as much as disposable nappies. This saving increases with every child because the cloth nappies can be used again and again.
Cloth nappies have the added bonus of being free of harmful chemicals and plastics.
You might also like to consider a cloth nappy washing service, but bear in mind the energy and emissions associated with transportation.
Some parents choose to use a combination of modern cloth and biodegradable disposable nappies, minimising the use of disposable nappies as much as possible.
Biodegradable disposable nappies use fewer chemicals and are generally not made from plastic, but they can still take decades to break down. To be biodegradable they need to be composted under stringent conditions, which does not happen at standard landfill facilities. If you choose to use 'eco biodegradables' remember to look for compostable or recyclable packaging as well.
There are many ways to reduce the environmental impact of cloth nappies such as:
Reduce the environmental impact of disposables by using 'biodegradable' nappies and flushing solid waste rather than putting it in the bin. (please note, however, that animal waste should not be flushed down the toilet).
Sustainable shopping, which includes purchasing locally-made products rather than imported, saves on transport carbon cost. Whether you choose cloth or disposable nappies or both, try to purchase locally.