Reusable Cloth Nappies Versus Disposable
As a big fan of reusable cloth nappies and a cloth nappy retailer, I have been in many discussions about cloth nappies and their comparisons to disposable nappies. With disposable nappies lasting up to 500 years in landfill after just a single use, it is hard to see that there could be an argument against reusable cloth nappies. Frustratingly, many people refer to some of the incorrect claims made by a scientific assessment in 2001 and 2002 about this very topic. Amongst the many advantages of reusable cloth nappies, one of the biggest of course is the environmental benefit above disposable nappies. This is the moment that you often hear the grumbling about how cloth nappies are no better than disposable nappies when you factor in the laundering process. In my opinion, this is simply not true.
The UK’s Environment Agency first commissioned a lifecycle assessment for disposable and reusable nappies in 2001 to 2002 and the report was published in 2005. There were many incorrect assumptions made about the use of cloth nappies and the standard process widely used to launder them. There is even a section included in this study on commercially laundered cloth nappies. Such an idea is virtually alien to cloth nappy users in Ireland. I don’t think such a service even exists in Ireland, and if it did, I doubt many would risk handing their beloved cloth nappies over to a stranger to wash. I guess it’s important at this stage to point out that the use of modern cloth nappies far outweighs the use of traditional terry nappies in Ireland today.
The first and most obvious issue that many people have with this study, is that it suggests that over 32% of people wash their cloth nappies at 90 degrees Celsius . This is a practice that was possibly carried out by some people with traditional terry nappies, but I have yet to meet anyone that has washed a modern cloth nappy at 90 degrees Celsius. In fact, washing at such a temperature would void any manufacturing warranty's as modern cloth nappies are simply not expected to endure such an extreme washing temperature.
The study also suggests that less than 18% of people wash their nappies at 40 degrees Celsius. While it is usually recommended to wash cloth nappies at 60 degrees, many people (like myself) continue to wash their nappies at 40 degrees with no issues. I would only wash at 60 degrees Celsius if my baby had a tummy bug or similar. I struggle to believe that less than 1 in 5 people wash their nappies at 40 degrees.
The next issue that I have with this study is that it suggests that 80% of cloth nappies are soaked in a bucket using an added sanitiser. The manufacturing process and environmental impact of sanitiser is included in the studies findings against reusable cloth nappies. The reality of modern cloth nappies is that the practice of soaking and sanitising nappies is dying out and the vast majority of cloth nappy users would simply dry store the nappies in a wet bag or similar. The practice of soaking and sanitising cloth nappies was better suited to traditional terry nappies, and that practice is thought to actually degrade your modern cloth nappies, hence why so few do that!
Another issue I have with this study (yes there are many!) is the assumption that 49% of cloth nappies are washed using softener. One of the most universal washing recommendations of cloth nappies, is to not use any softener at all. The fibres of a cloth nappy works much more efficiently when no softener is used, and those that have accidentally used softeners usually discover that the absorption abilities of their cloth nappies is drastically reduced after softeners are used. When selling cloth nappies to a “newbie” I would always emphasise no use of softeners, and most manufacturers would state the same.
A slightly hilarious assumption in the study is that almost 10% of people iron their cloth nappies, and of course the energy used by the iron is factored into the study and the environmental impact of cloth nappies. I have yet to meet someone that would iron their cloth nappies, and if I did, I would bring them on a walk to help clear their head. Life is too short for unnecessary ironing!
The study also includes the use of tumble dryers but their statistics vary from 19% upwards. Tumble driers can and are used in the dying of cloth nappies, but it is important to remember that in a temperate climate like ours, cloth nappies can be line dried for most of the year. The rest of the year, old schoolers like myself who do not have a tumble dryer can dry them in a hot press. Over the past decade or so, there has been great advances made in the energy efficiency of white goods, including tumble dryers. It is safe to assume that the average tumble dryer today is more energy efficient than the average ones in 2001 when this study was carried out.
The study averages nappy use to the first 2.5 years of life. Many children are in nappies longer than that, and of course this is not factored in the study. The study also only calculates the use of cloth nappies being used for one child for 2.5 years, when the reality is many cloth nappies are used on multiple children for many more years.
The study briefly mentions the packaging of cloth nappies, and nowadays most cloth nappy manufacturers avoid the use of plastic packaging. This has been an obvious change to me over the past 6 years of cloth nappy use and gradually I have seen more and more cloth nappy manufacturers opting for plastic free packaging, or simply no packaging at all.
I am not alone in my criticism of this study, so much so that the UK’s Environment Agency carried out an updated study in 2008 to alter the laundering criteria laid out in the first study. This of course drastically changed the results. The updated study concluded that reusable cloth nappies were up to 40% better for the environment than disposable nappies. Of course my criticisms don’t stop at the first study. The second study still has factors that I feel reduce the percentage that reusable cloth nappies are deemed better for the environment. This study assumes that everyone washes their cloth nappies at 60 degrees Celsius. There are a large number of old school rebels like myself that continue to wash their nappies at 40 degrees.
The newer study assumes that nearly 27% of all washes are followed by a drying cycle in a tumble dryer. With more and more people becoming environmentally aware, you might find that more and more people are prepared to simply be a little more patient and wait for their reusable cloth nappies to line dry. While the updated study was a welcome development, there are still factors within the updated study that I would argue doesn’t adequately show the benefits of reusable cloth nappies above disposable ones.
The 2008 study’s concluding figure of 40% benefit to the environment by using cloth nappies can be improved upon by you personally with the following tips:
- Although washing at 60 degrees Celsius is often recommended, you can wash at 40 degrees and experience no issues at all.
- Use an A+ rated energy efficient washing machine if possible.
- Tumble dry as little as possible, only during the winter. Better still, don’t tumble dry at all.
- If you are using a tumble dryer it is best to use an A+ rated energy efficient one.
- Use the cloth nappies on more than one child. If you don’t intend on having a large brood yourself, you can pass on your cloth nappies to a friend.
- Do not use fabric softener.
- Never iron your nappies! Life is simply too short.
I have made plenty of assumptions myself on people's cloth nappy washing routines, based on personal interactions with people. To more accurately gauge people washing routines for cloth nappies I have created this short survey:
If you would like to subscribe to our All About Cloth Nappies Blog via a blog feed reader (such as Feedly) you can do so by copying this URL and inserting it into the feed reader:
If you would also like to subscribe to our All About Eco Living Blog via a blog feed reader, you can do so by using this URL: