Generally most disposable nappies consist of three layers, a core pad covered in a soft liner and enclosed in a waterproof casing. The liner, the part closest to baby’s skin, is made of plastic polymer polypropylene. Baby’s fluids flow down through the liner into the pulp-based pad layer and into the core. The core absorbs urine and faeces and is made out of fluff pulp originating from wood pulp, which usually comes from softwood trees such as spruce or pine and SAP, an absorbent polymer. Then finally the casing, a plastic bottom layer to prevent leakage from the nappy. All of these plastics are petroleum based.
What is in a disposable nappy?
70% - Core containing fluff pulp and absorbent material
10% - Polypropylene topsheet to protect against wetness
13% - Polyethylene backsheet to prevent leakage
7% - Other, including tapes, elastics and adhesives
Source: BBC News
Although there are no known health risks in using disposable nappies the production of disposable nappies creates a by-product called dioxin which is known to cause cancer, various diseases and other health risks. The amount of dioxin in the nappy itself isn’t enough to cause harm, but dioxin in the environment may be harmful.
A baby can go through 8,000 to 10,000 disposable nappies before becoming fully toilet trained, approximately 18 billion disposable nappies are purchased yearly in the US alone. Once they are used, roughly 95% of the 18 billion faeces and urine filled nappies enter the household rubbish stream. They ultimately end up in landfills and on average will take over 300 years to breakdown, creating an immediate public health hazard and an environmental risk of polluting underground water supplies.
A ‘green’ alternative to the standard disposable is to buy biodegradable disposable nappies. Be fore warned that there is no such thing as a 100% biodegradable nappy, most are approximately 60% biodegradable. There are some fantastic Australian companies that not only supply biodegradable nappies but are eco-conscious in the materials used, packaging and are also in support of green non-profit organisations.
Modern cloth nappies are mostly made from a natural material, mainly non organic cotton, sometimes organic cotton and more recently we are starting to see sustainable crops such as hemp or bamboo. What ever the type of crop used in cloth nappies, a few things are the same, crops must be watered (cotton more so) and most are sprayed with fertilizer and pesticides. Then they must be mechanically harvested, transported to a manufacturing plant where fibers are separated from the plant, baled and then transported again to a textile factory to be made into fabric. This fabric is then shipped to a cutting and sewing factory to be made into nappies. Then shipped again to nappy company’s warehouses for storage and then later shipped to whomever purchases their nappies. Your nappy, most likely will have come from half way around the world, using oil, even if your buying an Australian brand.
Most parents who choose to use cloths nappies full time on their babies, tend to buy around 21-26. This allows clean nappies to still be available while soiled nappies accumulate into a full wash load. With each soiled nappy, faeces ends up being washed into a toilet and then enters the wastewater treatment cycle. Once a full load has been achieved they are washed using ordinary laundry liquid, hung out to dry in the sun or dried in a tumble dryer. Modern cloth nappies last for more than one child in a family and apart from plastic fastenings, once they are unusable can completely decompose, because they're made from natural materials.
Further reduce the environmental impact of cloth nappies by following these guidelines:
- Lowering washing temperatures
- Use earth friendly washing detergents effective in cold water
- Stock up on nappies and wash only when you have a full load
- Refrain from using additional wash enhancers
- Air dry nappies
- Offset your electricity use with green tags
- Switch your electricity supply to a green provider
- Re-route washing machine water runoff into your garden
- Install a grey water recycling system
- Don't iron nappies!
The Environmental impact of the full life cycle of nappies per infant, per year can be summarised:
|Impact||Reusable nappies||Disposable nappies|
|Energy||2532 Megajoules||8900 Megajoules|
|Waste water||12.4 cubic metres||28 cubic metres|
|Non-regenerable raw materials||25 kilograms||208 kilograms|
|Renewable raw materials||4 kg||361 kg|
|Domestic solid waste||4 kg||240 kg|
|Land for raw materials||1,150-6,800 hectares||29,500-32,300 hectares|
Source: Women's Environment Network
No doubt parents find disposable nappies easier. All that you have to do is take the nappy off, clean baby and then put the new nappy on. No handling unwanted waste products, you just roll up the nappy, pop it in the bin and forget about it. But what is the real price for this convenience? Not only is the price in currency dearer but the environmental cost is far greater.