There's no getting around it: disposable nappies take a toll on the environment. Because they contain plastic (which is essential for keeping leaks in), they don't tend to biodegrade in landfill, so they can take up to 150 years to break down.
Even 'biodegradable' disposable nappies take many years to break down in landfill.
If you have a child in nappies and you'd like to reduce your reliance on regular disposable nappies, you have three options:
1. Use modern cloth nappies (MCN)
2. Use disposable nappies with 'eco-friendly' claims
3. Use a mixture of both.
"The best way to reduce your environmental impact when it comes to nappies is to opt for modern cloth nappies," says CHOICE babies and kids products expert Rebecca Ciaramidaro.
"While they lack the convenience of disposable nappies, they've come a long way from the simple terry towelling squares. Now they have absorbent padding and liners, water-resistant covers and leak-proof elasticised leg holes."
And MCNs are hitting the mainstream, with more and more retailers stocking them.
Brands like ModiBodi that make reusable menstrual products have expanded their repertoires to include cloth nappies, and even Aldi and Kmart have jumped on the bandwagon. (You could always pick up a couple of cheap MCNs from Kmart for a trial run to see if it's something you want to commit to.)
MCNs are actually far more simple than the bulky cloth nappies that many of us grew up in, so let go of any thoughts of baggy, leaky terry-cloth nappies and huge tubs of laundry soaking in Napisan.
If you're not sure you want to commit to MCNs, a nappy library is a good place to start. You can hire a range of nappies from nappy retailers for a test run. At the end of the hire period, you can either return them to the retailer, keep the ones you like, or use the hire fee as a credit for the retailer's store.
MCN laundry services also exist, which can ease the laundry burden in those first intense weeks of bringing your baby home. This can give you a bit of a breather until you find your rhythm. (I didn't use one of these, so can't comment on how well they work.)
You might be put off by upfront cost of MCNs, but they may work out cheaper than disposables over time, and there's quite the trade in secondhand nappies online. (Don't worry – you can sanitise them before use!). This is a good way to try out a range of MCN brands and styles to find what works for you and your baby. I cobbled together a collection of MCNs from brand-new and second-hand purchases, plus some hand-me-downs from my cousin.
Choosing the right nappy for your child can take trial and error. A nappy library is a good way to start.
Claims on nappy packages range from vague to absurd. It can be hard to make sense of all the claims, let alone work out how much of a difference the claims actually make. These are some of the claims we found on nappies we tested:
- 'Planet and baby friendly'
- 'No nasties'
- 'Non-GMO cotton'
- 'Only certified bio- and plant-based material on baby's skin'
- 'Liner made from plant-based material'
- 'Natural ingredients'
It's not clear whether these claims are about the nappy's impact on the environment or the baby: non-toxic to whom? How is it planet-friendly? If the liner of the nappy is made from plant-based material, what's the rest of the nappy made from?
Regardless of what the manufacturers claim, disposable nappies are far from an eco-friendly product.
Some products claim to use some biodegradable materials, but nappies need to be disposed of in landfill, making biodegradability difficult to occur, or even occur at allCHOICE babies and kids product expert Rebecca Ciaramidaro
"Some products claim to use some biodegradable materials, but nappies need to be disposed of in landfill, making biodegradability difficult to occur, or even occur at all," says Ciaramidaro.
"You would need to separate the biodegradable components from the rest and send them to a commercial composting facility for them to actually biodegrade (and this isn't really possible once the nappy has been soiled)."
Plant-based will help
Even though you can't reduce the environmental impact at the end of a nappy's life cycle, by choosing nappies made with plant-based materials, you can reduce the impact at the start instead.
"Some manufacturers do make a conscious effort to lower their carbon footprint and use renewable resources like plant-based materials, bioplastics and organic materials," Ciaramidaro says.
So take environmental claims with a grain of salt, and consider the impact of all the materials in the nappy and packaging when looking for a more environmentally friendly option.
Hands on: using a combination of cloth and disposable nappies, depending on circumstances, can be a good compromise for busy parents.
If using cloth nappies full-time feels overwhelming but you still want to minimise your environmental footprint, a hybrid model is one way you can reduce your disposable nappy use.
There are a few ways to do this:
- Use MCNs when you're at home and disposables for convenience when you're out and about.
- Use MCNs during the day and disposables at night. This can minimise the number of overnight nappy changes, as disposables are more absorbent.
- If your child's daycare/grandparent/nanny isn't on board with MCNs, you can always use disposables in care situations and MCNs when you're in charge of the baby.
I switched to this hybrid model when I returned to work. This was partly to minimise the laundry part of the paid work/housework juggle, and because my child's daycare struggled to use the MCNs correctly, so there were a lot of leaks in the early days.
I also used disposables at night to make sure we all got as much sleep as possible. (Unfortunately, my child had other ideas and started waking every hour when I returned to work – yawn!).
Unfortunately, we can't validate the environmental claims of all the nappies that come through our test labs – the cost is prohibitive and spending all our money on chemical tests would mean we couldn't test other products for our members and other shoppers.
This means that all we can go on is what the manufacturers say about their products. We've taken a look at what's on each pack, and read the fine print on each manufacturer's website, so you don't have to. Here's what they have to say.
Huggies Ultimate Nappies Size 3.
Huggies Ultimate Nappies Size 3
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 92%
- Price: 38 cents a nappy
- Eco claims: Liner is wrapped in plant-derived materials sourced from renewable sugarcane.
This nappy certainly delivers the goods in terms of performance (it was the top performer overall in our nappy test), but in terms of eco credentials? Not so much.
Although the advertising spruiks that the nappy liner is "wrapped in plant-derived materials sourced from renewable sugarcane", the fine print reveals that this only comprises about 50% of the nappy liner.
And Huggies claims that its nappies are made with an average of 30% biodegradable material (except for its nappy pants). What's that biodegradable material? Wood pulp. It may be biodegradable but as nappies can't be composted, it's unlikely to biodegrade much (if at all) in landfill.
As for the rest of the nappy? Unsurprisingly, there's no other information about what it's made from.
These nappies scored well in our lab tests, with a perfect score for leakage and 90% for absorbency.
Read the full Huggies Ultimate Nappies review.
Tooshies by TOM Nappies with Organic Bamboo Infant Size 2.
Tooshies by TOM Nappies with Organic Bamboo Infant Size 2
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 92%
- Price: 42 cents a nappy
- Eco claims: Nappies with organic bamboo; Planet and baby friendly; No nasties.
The equal-top performer in our nappy test is a purportedly eco-friendly nappy, which shows just how far the sector has come in terms of performance. But just how eco-friendly are Tooshies by TOM Nappies?
According to the Tom Co website, the nappies have a biodegradable backsheet and an organic bamboo cellulose core, and "have zero nasty ingredients so no lotions, parabens or fragrances".
These Tooshies by TOM Nappies scored well across the board, receiving excellent scores for leakage, velcro strength, and rewet (how wet a nappy is five minutes after a gush of liquid), and a very good score for absorbency.
Read the full Tooshies by TOM Nappies review.
We've also tested the Newborn, Crawler, Walker and Toddler sizes in the Tooshies by TOM Nappies range.
Happy Little Camper Ultra Absorbent Infant Size 2.
Happy Little Camper Ultra Absorbent Infant Size 2
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 81%
- Price: 28 cents a nappy
- Eco claims: Gentle natural ingredients; Non-GMO cotton.
The Happy Little Camper nappies have a natural wood pulp 'bio-core', which the company claims is "ultra-absorbent" and will "soak up more liquid than other conventional and organic brands". Unfortunately, that wasn't what our tests found: this nappy scored just 70% for absorbency. It's not a terrible score, but it just goes to show that you shouldn't take the marketing spin as gospel.
"We source only the purest, sustainably sourced pulp and natural cotton which are all approved by Mother Nature and FSC certified," Happy Little Camper's website says. But it's not clear which part of the nappy contains cotton, nor why the company chooses to use non-GMO cotton.
Bear in mind that Happy Little Camper nappies are manufactured in Europe, so they do come with some serious air miles. And be careful which Happy Little Campers nappies you buy: the Infant Size 2 nappies scored well in our tests, but the Size 5 (walker) nappies didn't fare so well, scoring just 58% overall.
The Size 2 nappies scored 100% on our leakage test, but not quite so well on our absorbency or rewet tests (70% and 72%, respectively). Still, with an overall score of 81%, they're recommended by our experts for their performance, if not their eco credentials.
Read the full Happy Little Camper Ultra Absorbent review.
Ecoriginals Eco-friendly Nappies Toddler Size 4
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 78%
- Price: 91c per nappy
- Eco claims: No less than 90% biodegradable; Home compostable packaging; 100% cotton breathable backsheet; Plastic and carbon neutral.
The most expensive eco nappy we tested, Ecoriginals also has ambitious eco credentials. The company claims to be "plastic neutral": for every gram of plastic in its products sold, the company reportedly collects and recycles the equivalent amount of plastic litter.
These nappies score a perfect 100% for leakage, but were less impressive in our absorbency test.
We also tested Ecoriginals' Walker sized nappies. At $1 per nappy they're even more pricey but didn't score quite as well as the toddler size, with an overall score of 76%.
Read the full Ecoriginals Toddler Size 4 review.
Eco by Naty Size 3.
Eco by Naty Size 3
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 75%
- Price: 44 cents a nappy
- Eco claims: 0% oil-based plastic on baby's skin; No nasty chemicals; Plant-based top sheet; Plant-based elastic ears; Plant-based leg cuffs; Plant-based frontal ears; Plant-based backsheet.
According to the company, Eco by Naty nappies have a core mostly made from FSC-certified wood pulp, with the other layers made up of plant-based materials. None of the components that come into contact with the baby's skin are made from oil-based plastic, the company claims.
These nappies scored relatively well in our tests, but didn't blow us away with their absorbency or leakage scores. Whereas all the 'eco' nappies we tested scored 100% for leakage, Eco by Naty scored just 70%.
They're also manufactured in Turkey, so you'll need to factor the air miles into your decision about whether or not to buy these nappies.
Read the full Eco by Naty review.
In June 2021, Thankyou announced that it would be discontinuing its nappy range. In a blog post, the company said it had struggled with the sustainability side of the business: "You can nail it by creating a 'too expensive' product that no-one buys or simply greenwash a cheaper product. But that's not who we are."
However friendly your baby, there's no such thing as an eco-friendly disposable nappy – whatever the manufacturer may claim.
If you break out in a cold sweat at the thought of using cloth nappies full-time, here are a few changes you can make to reduce your disposable nappy footprint:
- Use MCNs part-time to minimise the number of disposables you use.
- Buy 'eco' disposable nappies (but learn to interpret the marketing spin).
- Buy nappies with no or little plastic packaging.
- Avoid automated nappy disposal systems that wrap dirty nappies in plastic for you – it's another plastic appliance that will end up in landfill when it inevitably breaks.
- Make your own wipes to minimise plastic packaging (method below).
DIY baby wipes
If you're trying to reduce your overall nappy-related environmental footprint, changing the way you use nappy wipes is the next step.
Making your own baby wipes will reduce the amount of plastic packaging you create, and give you control over exactly what they're made of. They're also much cheaper than store-bought baby wipes, and as long as you have a stash of paper towels at home, you'll always be able to whip up a batch if you run out.
If you're trying to reduce your overall nappy-related environmental footprint, changing the way you use nappy wipes is the next step
When I used these I found they worked well – even on particularly messy nappy situations. But make sure you use good-quality paper towels. (Believe me, I tried to use cheap ones and instantly regretted it.)
Here's a basic recipe to get you started.
Homemade baby wipes
- 1 roll paper towel
- Plastic container with a lid (I used an Ikea one)
- 2 cups hot water
- 1 teaspoon liquid soap.
1. Cut the roll of paper towel in half using a serrated knife.
2. Put the paper towel in the container, with the cardboard tube standing upright.
3. Mix the hot water with the liquid soap.
4. Pour the mixture evenly over the paper towel.
5. Wait until the paper towel has absorbed most of the liquid, then turn the paper towel roll up the other way so that the paper towel is wet all the way through.
6. Remove the cardboard tube from the paper towel roll. (Don't forget to recycle or compost it!)
7. Pull the wipes from the centre of the roll to use.
- You may need more or less water depending on how thick your paper towel is.
- Please don't flush these wipes – they'll block your pipes!
- You can tweak the recipe by adding other ingredients, such as aloe vera gel, witch hazel extract, oils such as olive, coconut or sweet almond, vitamin E, herbal tea such as chamomile, etc.
- If you're heading out of the house, you can pop some of these wipes in a smaller plastic container or reusable plastic bag.