Reusable cloth nappies and the environment

Written by Tory on the 18 May 2007

Reusable cloth nappies and the environment

Cloth nappies are less damaging to the environment than disposable nappies. For some people, this is the main reason for choosing washable nappies; for most, it is at least a factor in their decision.

The two main environmental issues to consider when deciding between cloth and disposable nappies are landfill and energy.


Disposables create an enormous amount of household waste for a family using them. A baby produces around 2 tonnes of nappies before potty training. Imagine a large skip bin filled with smelly, dirty nappies! I saw this enacted on a UK TV programme and I was really shocked at the reality of what I had thrown away in the 2.5 years my first child was using them.

Most people when using disposables don't tend to dispose of the solids into the toilet (although they should), so all that human waste is going into landfill, which causes contamination and public health risks.

The other big concern is the amount of time that a disposable nappy takes to decompose. It has been suggested that it could be up to 500 years. I find this a scary thought! Cloth nappies are obviously used many times by the one child. They can also be used again by subsequent children in the same family; or sold / passed on to another family.


Both types of nappies require energy in manufacture, with disposables, however, this is an ongoing process as new nappies are continually needed. Cloth nappies will require energy in caring for them, but modern washing machines are very efficient and there is no need to use a tumble dryer.

Energy and resources required in the production of disposable nappies

Disposable nappies are made from petro chemicals, i.e. crude oil. It takes a cup of crude oil to make one disposable nappy.

I've borrowed some figures compiled on the Zero Waste New Zealand Trust website:

  • It takes 4.5 trees to make the pulp used in disposable nappies for one baby over 2 1/2 years (IE: 7 million trees a year are felled for UK babies, 1.3 million trees for NZ babies)
  • Disposable nappies use 3.5 times more energy, 8 times more non-renewable raw materials, 90 times more renewable materials than washable nappies.
  • It takes as much energy to produce one throwaway nappy as it does to wash a cloth nappy 200 times.
  • Disposables produce 2.3 times more waste water (at the production stage) and 60 times more solid waste than washable nappies. One baby in disposables will produce 2 tonnes of solid waste!
  • In a household with one baby, disposables will make up 50% of total household waste. Just one single item, disposable nappies.

There is much reference to "The Study" that was carried out in 2005 by the Environment Agency in the UK. This should have been a decisive and helpful study to aid people in making an informed decision about what type of nappy to use. Unfortunately it was not, it was full of flaws and bizarre assumptions about how cloth nappies are used and washed. It took into account things like energy required to iron the nappies - who on earth would iron a nappy? (If you know someone who does I'd love to hear about it!). It also assumed that people were washing their nappies at 90 degrees C, even though most modern cloth nappies can only be washed at 60 degrees C, and many people choose to wash at 40 degrees C. It was also based on 47 nappies per child, where in reality most people have between 20 and 30 and some people even less!

The good news is that they have realised their mistakes and are going to be doing another study. For this reason I won't be discussing this study any further at the moment and I look forward to the new one being released with bated breath!

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