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.
In an ideal world, we'd all opt for reusable nappies for our babies. But the reality is that modern cloth nappies (MCNs) require time, energy and upfront money – things that are often in short supply whenever your family grows.
So what's an eco-conscious parent to do? If the thought of all those disposable nappies sitting in landfill for centuries fills you with dread, here are some tips to help you navigate nappy changes with a clearer conscience.
"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 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."
The best way to reduce your environmental impact when it comes to nappies is to opt for modern cloth nappiesRebecca Ciaramidaro, CHOICE baby and kids expert
But if you break out in a cold sweat at the thought of using cloth nappies full-time, there are a few changes you can make that will reduce your disposable nappy footprint:
- Use MCNs only 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
- Don't use nappy disposal systems that use lots of plastic
- Make your own wipes to minimise plastic packaging.
We'll explore these options below. But before we do, a quick word.
Just to say…
Full disclosure: I used cloth nappies part-time when my now-six-year-old child was a baby, so I am somewhat biased on the matter. But I'm also a working parent, so I know how hard the extra laundry can be.
Every family is different, so using cloth nappies may not be right for you – and from one sleep-deprived parent to another, there's no judgement from me. We all do what we can.
Choosing the right nappy for your child can take trial and error. A nappy library is a good way to start.
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.
Benefits of a nappy library
I found a nappy library to be a fantastic way to get started with MCNs as it felt low-pressure, and gave me the opportunity to try at my own pace before I bought. And the hire company provided detailed information about using MCNs, plus online support for any questions I had. Plus I knew that if I didn't end up committing to MCNs, there wouldn't be a pile of them in the cupboard mocking me every time I went to change my child's nappy!
If you're not sure you want to commit to MCNs, a nappy library is a good place to start
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.)
And if you're not keen on the expense of MCNs (they can be exxy upfront), 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.
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 therefore close to a change table at all times!) 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!).
I felt terribly guilty about all the disposable nappies I was putting in the bin. But I did what I could and kept telling myself that every cloth nappy I used was one fewer nappy in landfill.
As with many things in parenting, you have to pick your battles – and working yourself to exhaustion to keep your child solely in cloth nappies isn't sustainable.
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'
- '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? What's wrong with using GMO cotton if the baby isn't ingesting it anyway? If the liner of the nappy is made from plant-based material, what's the rest of the nappy made from?
Take environmental claims with a grain of salt, and consider the impact of all the materials when looking for a more environmentally-friendly option
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 all," says Rebecca.
"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," Rebecca 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.
However friendly your baby, there's no such thing as an eco-friendly disposable nappy – whatever the manufacturer may claim.
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. As for the rest of the nappy? Unsurprisingly, there's no other information about what it's made from.
Nothing to brag about
The Huggies website points out that the cardboard packaging is made from 98% recycled materials, which are recyclable (not that that's exactly worth bragging about as most cardboard boxes are recyclable), and the plastic bags that enclose the nappies can be recycled through the REDcycle program. (Again, hardly a brag-worthy claim.)
As far as eco claims go, Huggies Ultimate Nappies are still predominantly made of petrochemical-based plastic
The company also bigs up its commitment to 'no added nasties', which, according to the advertising, means "no added formaldehyde, elemental chlorine, natural rubber latex or other chemicals restricted by Kimberly-Clark". (If you're interested, the Kimberly-Clark Restricted Substances List is a 12-page document that's full of long chemical names.)
Nice and clear, right? We wouldn't blame you if you're as confused as we are by all this marketing spin. As far as eco claims go, Huggies Ultimate Nappies are still predominantly made of petrochemical-based plastic – a little bit of liner made from renewable sources isn't going to put a big dint in their environmental footprint.
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 a biodegradable blended bamboo core made from organic bamboo, and are "hypoallergenic & free from nasty chemicals to protect little ones".
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 and non-GMO cotton.
The Happy Little Camper nappies have a natural wood pulp 'bio-core', which the company claims is 'ultra-absorbent'. 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 when the product isn't ingested.
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 3 (crawler) nappies didn't fare so well, scoring just 67% 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.
Rascal + Friends Eco Premium Eco Nappies Crawler Size 3.
Rascal + Friends Eco Premium Eco Nappies Crawler Size 3
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 81%
- Price: 43 cents a nappy
- Eco claims: Sustainable pulp, compostable packaging, plant-based biofilm, plant-based backsheet, plant-based topsheet, sustainable tissue wrapped core.
Available only through Coles, Rascal + Friends is a NZ-based company. They received the same overall score as the Happy Little Camper nappies, but our experts don't recommend them, as they scored only 70% for absorbency and 72% on our rewet test.
The nappy packaging is made from cornstarch and is certified for composting both at home and commercially. The nappy does contain some plastics, so it needs to be disposed of in general rubbish.
Thankyou Mover and Shaker Toddler 10–15kg.
Thankyou Mover and Shaker Toddler 10–15kg
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 78%
- Price: 39 cents a nappy
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."
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, 85% compostable absorbent core, 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.
We've also tested two other Eco by Naty nappy sizes: size 4 (7–18kg) scored 65% overall, and size 5 (11–25kg) scored 69%.
Read the full Eco by Naty review.
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
I used DIY baby wipes with my now-six-year-old child, and found that 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 essential oils, 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.