For years there’s been an ongoing debate over which type of nappy has the least impact on the environment. While it might seem clearcut that reusable cloth nappies would be a more environmentally friendly option than disposables, in fact there are environmental costs associated with using both.
Many conflicting studies have been published, but unfortunately not many independent ones. Most research has been funded or sponsored by a company or organisation with a barrow to push, be it disposable nappy companies or environmental groups.
It takes more raw materials to make disposables than cloth nappies. They also have an obvious impact on waste disposal and landfill — in 1999 it was estimated that using an average of six nappies a day over two and a half years produces about 734kg of solid waste. Multiply that by the number of disposable-wearing babies born in Australia each year and that’s a lot of disposable nappies taking up space in landfill.
For just one baby you’re talking about roughly 8000 nappies. And while it’s possible the weight of the disposables themselves may have decreased, the number of people using them has increased.
Parts of a disposable nappy are potentially biodegradable, but whether they do biodegrade and how long it takes will depend on the type of landfill, and whether bacteria needed for decomposition have access to air, water and light.
Cloth nappies also have an environmental cost. Growing cotton requires the use of pesticides and water, although new strains of genetically modified cotton claim to reduce the use of chemicals.
However, the most significant environmental impact of cloth nappies occurs during their use, rather than production or disposal. Washing and cleaning them requires water and energy that you don’t use with disposable. You can minimise this by using cold water to wash and by drying on the line.
Unfortunately the expensive option of nappy services is probably the best from an environmental perspective, due to economies of scale. As a cheaper alternative and environmental compromise, you might consider using cloth nappies at home and disposables when you’re out.