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Thursday, 10 March 2011

To cloth or not to cloth?

I'd like to share with you the findings of my research on what to diaper my baby Grub with. I have come across mountains of information on both disposable nappies and reusable cloth nappies. This is a condensed version of the information.


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

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.



  1. Elizabeth de Fredrick9 September 2011 at 16:07

    Hi Koo, I'm happy to admit that we use disposables when we're out, but MCN's are the go at home.

    Can you tell us if you've had any luck/problems with any particular brands of MCN's. We use Cushie Tushies and I am rather disappointed with them - but we've spent the money so I'm not going to just throw them away. I was thinking of the Disana (spelling) next time.

    I'd love to know what other people are using?

  2. I did do a bit of research before I bought ours. I ended up going with Baby Beehinds bamboo fitted nappies, reason being is they're "one size fits all". The good thing about them is they're avaliable in value packs and each nappy comes with a booster and a night time booster, so you're basically never going to run out of boosters. Plus the WHOLE nappy is absorbent, not just the booster section. They're absolutely horrible for newborns and are way to bulky which makes having to put the Beehinds nappy cover on top is practically impossible. BUT having said all that, once she hit about 6 months they worked great. Although I really don't like the corresponding covers, the velcro on the front is way too bulky and stiff. I much prefer Bummis covers, but have yet to try their nappies, I hear they're good though. I've tried the Disana woolen covers, had leakage problems and for the price, she out grew them way too fast. Pretty happy with my Baby Beehind nappies, but am yet to find a cover that I'm really happy with. Also I use Bummis flushable liners, sparingly... but every time I think shes not going to poo... she does!