07 Jun

The Nappy Debate

At a recent dinner party, my friend Fran and I started to discuss nappies. Fran has just completed her MSc in Environmental Strategy and was telling me about an interesting study that any parent considering using eco-nappies should know about. Thank you, Fran, for summarizing the study here for us.

With baby on the way, the eco mum makes a load of best laid plans; of course, you are going to do your best to breast feed, puree organic veg, bathe your little ‘un in environmentally sensitive products…but washing nappies for two and a half years? That’s the average for a child in the UK…and with average of over 4 changes a day over that time, that’s more than 3,700 nappies!  It may well defeat all but the most committed environmentalist.

But should it? Just how bad are disposable nappies? Well, not half as bad as you may think. A study in 2005 conducted by the UK Environment Agency concluded that, when it came to assessing the environmental impact of the disposable against the reusable cloth nappy or commercial nappy services, it was too close to call. Pretty galling for those who had slaved over a hot tub all those years, doing what they thought was the ‘right thing’. How, how, how could it be right that sending kilos of waste to landfill could be the same as reusing?

It all comes down to life-cycle assessment. We tend to look at things in terms of the product itself, rather than how we use that product. So we fret over the rights and wrongs of buying air freighted beans from Kenya, completely ignoring the fact that our 5 mile round-trip drive to the supermarket generated far more emissions proportionate to the environmental impact of the beans and their share of the flight emissions. It’s not just the product and its disposal we should be concerned with, but also how that product is produced and used – the life cycle.

So it is with nappies; it’s about how you use them. Let’s cut to the chase – a single nappy, through its manufacture, use and disposal is responsible for:

- 89g of CO2 if it is reusable, washed at 60 C in a large load, line-dried and passed on to a second child (the rationale being that the CO2 generated in producing the product is spread over a longer period)

- 145g of CO2 if a disposable

- 280g of CO2 if a reusable, washed at 90 C and tumble-dried.

As the average family who go for reusables would fit somewhere between the best- and the worst-case scenarios above, the overall figure works out pretty similar to that for disposables. The impacts are just at different stages in the life cycle. Emissions from landfill only account for about 15% of the total emissions of a disposable nappy, most being associated with production, and although nappies are the single largest item sent to landfill in the UK. With home laundering, the impact is in the electricity used washing and drying and with nappy services the major impact is the transport emissions.

Put simply, if you want to be really eco, wash cool and line dry. The worst you can do is tumble dry and wash hot…(then decide it’s all too much and go back to disposables). If you decide that it’s all too much and go for disposables from the outset, it probably isn’t the end of the world. No option is perfect, but then neither are you!

Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK. Environment Agency 2005.
How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Mike Berners-Lee (Profile Books 2010).



  1. 07 Jun

    Michelle Fox-Reynolds

    This is a great post Julia, I used disposables with Layla to begin with then tried re-useable for 2-3mths and found this was very time consuming what with washing them and drying and very useless in the winter months as they took 3 days to dry by which point you would run your supply right down and end up using the tumble drier. Also with running a business I did not have time to do nappies,work and spend quality time with Layla as this is why I became a mum to have fun and quality time with her not spend hrs washing nappies

    Mel xx

  2. 07 Jun

    Eliza Claire

    I loved using cloth nappies with my two children. I found it incredibly easy – dry pail, straight into wash (40 degrees, non-bio powder) and then line drying in the sun to bleach them up (the bamboo nappies dry very fast) or on a radiator in the winter.
    I have a 17 month age-gap so had a considerable amount of time with 2 in cloth, and I’m really pleased that I got such good use from them. My sister-in-law is now expecting and is planning on using the nappies that I still have, so this has to be good for the environment!

  3. 07 Jun


    Oh that’s good to know. I was feeling slightly guilty using disposables but could not face the 2 years of washing cloth nappies!

  4. 07 Jun


    Definite food for thought – thanks for summing this up so concisely. I have always assumed reusable is better in the long run (and prettier as you can get some really funky nappy wraps), but when you put it like this, is all the trouble of washing and lugging wet nappies around really worth it?
    A mix and match approach may be the way forward, do what ever is easier for you, as either way your making your CO2 mark.

  5. 07 Jun


    IMO this is just another guilt-ridden decision for parents – just like breast-feeding and weaning. I don’t think we should view these things as a right or wrong, it’s all about what’s right for your family at that time.

    We originally planned to go into cloth nappies at 6 weeks but didn’t actually do it until 8 months. For us, that was the right choice – I felt guilty about the amount of landfill we were needlessly creating (the volume rather than the emissions). But it took a lot of research and trial and error and I completely understand why people are put off.

    I don’t know anyone else in ‘real’ life who uses cloth so I’m really proud of myself for doing it. I found some fab communities online who answered all my silly questions. We wash ours at 40 deg (you only need to wash at 60 deg until the baby is 6 months) and I’m planning to use our nappies again for any subsequent children we may have, or pass them on to someone else.

    I would never judge anyone for using disposables but I do wish there was more support available for those thinking about it but not knowing how to go about it. I think the biggest misconception is about the amount of ‘work’ using cloth nappies creates. I shove a bag of nappies in the washing machine every 2 or 3 days – is that really work?! Ok, I’m in danger of writing an essay (again!) so I’ll stop now!

  6. 07 Jun

    Mavis Dee

    This is fantastically interesting, thank you. Cloths nappies are something I have been considering for my coming baby as I had rejected it for twins in a flat with no outside drying. I’ve had very positive reports re: nappy rash (my own experience is that cloth nappy users can all give an opinion on nappy rash creams which is enough to put me off) and I felt I was copping out a bit. This is reassuring that I’m not a terrible person if I use disposables again.

  7. 08 Jun


    I used cloth on my little un from the minute she was born (apart from going on holiday when I used a green eco disposable). I’ve no idea if it saved me money – probably not as I turned into a bit of nappy junkie – cloth looks way cool compared to the hideous plastic of disposables.

    I only washed every two or three days – no hardship – I do more washing than that now! Plus I had a full time job and I was in the middle of doing a six year degree at university. I think our hatred of cloth nappies harks back to when our grandparents used those flat nappies with big shiny pins! Urgh!

    Disposables can take up to 20 to 30 years to bio-degrade, and if you have a twice monthly bin collection, that’s a lot of nappies filling up the bin and hanging round – oh no wait, why not get one of those things that wraps the already plastic nappy in some more plastic – that’ll definately do it for the environment!

    Cloth nappies don’t just last one or two children either. Plus I got my money back by selling them on. are some of the best cloth nappies and they’re also happy to talk to you about just how easy and how good for the environment they are too. I used their bamboo ones and they were fabbo.

    As for nappy rash, babies can get nappy rash in disposables or cloth – it depends on how much they wee! If you use fleece liners in cloth, it pretty much prevents nappy rash anyhow.

    I also used reusable wipes and my own wash (nice squirty bottle from Neal’s Yard plus a little lavender – very nice) rather than those chemically laden wipes you buy in the hundreds. My little un (who can sadly voice her opinion to me quite a lot now) tells me how much she hates the plastic eco-wipes (I keep em in the car for emergencies) as they make her skin hurt. Imagine using them on a baby with sensitive skin! In fact, use em on your lady bits and see how much you like em.

    So my advice is, try it for a month or so by hiring ( and if you hate it, make sure you use an eco nappy ( You won’t know until you try.

    Sorry for the sermon….

  8. 08 Jun


    My qualification to comment – 2 sons.

    Our first boy had terry towelling nappies and big pins, yes I am that old, the 2nd had disposable, eco didn’t exist then.

    Anyone who has faced a “full” Terry towelling nappy before breakfast will know just how gut wrenchingly awful these can be.

    I question the research as most toddlers should be well on the way to potty trained by 2 so the number of nappies per day should decrease from about 18 mths.

    If you’re feeling guilty about disposables don’t, millions of these are used everyday in care homes and by incontinent people, usually the elderly who could never cope with reusables. The environment doesn’t enter the equation where care for the elderly is concerned. That doesn’t make it better but it might help assuage a few guilty feelings.

  9. 08 Jun


    Sorry, but CO2 isn’t the only thing we should be worried about… Doesn’t the thought of all those disposables in landfill matter? Or the oil needed to make the plastics?

    As for ‘hard work’ – don’t we all have washing machines now? I don’t know about everyone else, but in order to wash my nappies i just put them in the machine and press a button. If we were all handwashing i’d agree it’d be hard work, but we’re not.

  10. 08 Jun


    I dont know anyone who washes their nappies on 90…Like Milly said, the C02 is just one factor, its also the sheer number of disposable nappies heading to landfill (6 billion a yr in uk alone!) and the fact that these nappies are full of fecal bacteria which can seep into our water system. Stuffing a few nappies into the washing machine every couple of days really isnt a hardship, and a small price to pay for a cute fluffy bum!

  11. 08 Jun


    There is a more up to date study conducted by the Environment Agency! I think it’s worth noting that disposables have a fixed environmental impact whereas the environmental impact of reusable nappies is in the hands of the user. If one chooses to use reusable nappies to be ‘eco friendly’ then they will wash at 60C or below, line dry and use them on more than one child because they want to. Using reusable nappies at least give you the chance to lower the environmental impact!
    It’s also worth noting that cloth nappies are not only potentially better for the environment but are better for your purse!

  12. 08 Jun


    It’s not clear from this article whether the figure given for the CO2 generated by a reusable nappy is throughout its entire lifespan or each time it’s washed. I simply find it hard to believe that, even if washed at 90 degrees and tumble dried, the environmental cost is higher for a reusable nappy – that has already been manufactured and shipped just once – than a disposable, EVERY ONE of which has had to be manufactured and shipped to the UK. Plus, as has already been pointed out, the idea of washing reusables at 90 degrees and tumble drying is a fallacy – in fact, washing at 90 degrees would damage a lot of cloth nappies so would be completely counter-productive. Nobody is a terrible person for using disposables – whatever gets you through parenthood! – but let’s not kid ourselves that they’re as environmentally friendly as reusables when the tiniest application of common sense tells us that they aren’t.

  13. 08 Jun

    Charlotte Castle

    So So many other elements to cloth nappies. No cancer-causing chemicals next to your LO’s skin, no horrible plastic scratchy material, no poo explosions leaving clothes needing washing all the time, no landfill.
    And these studies are always ridiculous (as previous posters have pointed out) as they don’t look at how real mum’s use cloth. I bought preloved (used) cloth nappies, wash at 40c every 3 days and line dry. i then sell the nappies on so that another baby uses them. Or I could use them for my next child. Meaning for 5 children I could use just 25 nappies instead of the 10,000 disposables I’d have rotting in landfill. Any posts like this are just guilt-ridden disposable users trying to feel less bad IMO.

  14. 08 Jun


    Hi, I just wanted to say that the study you are talking about has since been re-done as it based it’s findings on people using cloth in a way that they usually don’t (most people don’t wash at 90 or tumble dry for a start). There is a 2005 study that takes a much more realistic view on things.
    I used disposables with one child, cloth with another and believe everyone has the right to choose what is right for them at the time. However, everyone also has the right to the correct information, it’s sad that people don;t realise this study is outdated and wrong.

  15. 08 Jun


    I mean a later study than the 2005 one that takes a much more realistic view, sorry :)

  16. 08 Jun


    I would just like to add someone said about 20-30 yrs for a disposable nappy to degrade!!!!!, try 300-500yrs , every single disposable nappy ever used is still on this planet now .
    What a legacy to to leave , the nappies your baby used still around for generations to come.
    I always wash at 40 never used the dryer and its not exactly hours of washing , all you do is put them in a machine and turn it on , take them out and peg outside or put on an airer , must take half hour max every 3 days !!!!

    I think everyone needs to think more about this .

  17. 09 Jun


    See I believed this but this research is old. You can easily wash you nappies in a 30 or 40 wash and out your own clothes in with them. This means you aren’t making an extra load and the low setting also helps reduce your carbon footprint. I wash ours with some of my underwear and any tops that need washing. I do a no more than 2 loads a day, a light and a dark. Plus my washing machine allows me to set a “mini” wash saving me from wasting water if I do a small load.

  18. 09 Jun

    Birgitte @

    Hmm, interesting…

    First of all; I know several mothers who have reluctantly admitted to washing their reusable nappies at 90 degrees “just to be sure they are really clean…” so I think the study Julia is referring to is still valid in many households. I doubt many people are going to be honest in a survey when they, full of guilt, know that they should be washing at 30 degrees. One thing is telling anyone who’ll listen that you are using reusable nappies for the sake of the environment, another thing is being a worn-out overburdened mum who just wants less to do so that she can sleep a little bit when the baby does.

    Anyway, I did a lot of research into this before having a baby, and spoke to a lot of women who had either considered, tried or succeeded using reusables. Based on the feedback I got (including the washing on 90 ‘just in case’ and tumbling because ‘I just don’t have time to wait for them to dry naturally, I would need twice as many nappies’) I decided to go for biodegradable nappies.

    I opted for the Danish brand Bambo Nature. These had been recommended to me by all my environmentally conscious friends back home. Some of them use them exclusively like I did, and some of them use them for when they just don’t have time and energy to wash the reusables.

    I don’t know why Bambo nappies are not more widely sold here in the UK – they are much better than the other biodigradable brands you can get (Moltex and Nature Baby which I have tried as well, but they leak, and don’t seem as comfortable) however you can buy Bambo Nature online at Spirit Of Nature and Nature Botts. These are the main facts:

    Bambo Nature holds the Nordic SWAN award for reduced impact on the environment. These eco-friendly, skin friendly disposables have an absorbent core containing starch, a 100% biodegradable natural absorber.

    With extra stretchy, super-soft tabs, there is now less elastic used in the nappy so they are even more eco-friendly.

    - Resealable super stretchy, extra soft fastening tapes
    - Suitable for babies with eczema & other skin conditions
    - Totally chlorine free
    - No optical brighteners
    - No perfumes, lotions or moisturisers
    - No harmful chemicals in raw materials
    - Gentle oxygen bleaching process

    Available in five sizes from Premature to Junior, and Trainer Pants.

    And no, I’m not on commission. I should be though…

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