Feature

Cloth Versus Disposables Nappies

G Magazine

The debate has raged for years, but which nappies are better for the environment?

Nappies

Credit: iStockphoto

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If you've just arrived home from the hospital with your little one wrapped up like a bundle of fish and chips, you've a long road ahead of you. Junior is likely to go through around 5,000 nappy changes before he or she is toilet trained. And all that mess has a big environmental impact.

Production

Conventional disposable nappies are made from paper, plastic and an assortment of chemicals, dyes and fragrances.

Harley Wright, environment manager for Kimberly-Clark, maker of Australia's leading disposable brand, Huggies, says the company derives the fibre for its nappies from pine plantations in South Australia.

They use plantation wastes called thinnings. The wood is cooked up in a giant pressure cooker with a corrosive chemical called magnesium bisulphite to extract the cellulose, which becomes the fluffy tissue-like inside of the nappy.

About 43 per cent of a nappy (by weight) is this wood pulp. The outer coatings are fabric-like polymers, derived from fossil fuels which makes up 23 per cent of the weight, and there is a super-absorbant core made from a chemical called sodium polyacrylate, this is about 28 per cent of the nappy.

Huggies makes a point on its website of noting that it uses hydrogen peroxide rather than chlorine to bleach nappy fluff. The process, it assures parents, produces oxygen and leaves negligible residue in the environment.

Modern cloth nappies can be made of all kinds of fabrics, such as cotton, hemp, bamboo fleece and polyester.

The traditional nappy, however, is a square of brushed cotton. Cotton is a water-intensive crop that requires considerable amounts of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides to grow.

Use

Most families will work their way through about 5,000 disposable nappies. Meanwhile, cloth nappy users will get through about 50.

However those 50, of course, need to be washed. Mostly, wet nappies go in for a soak, while pooey nappies get scraped off into the toilet before going for a soak. Then they all get bundled into the washing machine.

Over two and a half years, that means about 88 extra loads of washing. That's around 48 extra kilowatt hours of electricity and 6,250 extra litres of water - and that's if you've got one of the most efficient brands of washing machine.

On top of this there is the water used for soaking and flushing - that could be over 23,342 litres.

Waste

Cloth nappies don't tend to create any waste - they mostly hang around the house for years as rags, or get handed on to a younger sibling.

Waste, however, is where disposables make the most impact. An extra 221 kg of waste is likely to be generated by 5,000 nappies.

The absorbent core and the polymer outer-layers do not decompose. And while the wood pulp is in theory biodegradable, modern landfills exclude air and water, meaning that the fluff has no chance to break down.

Nappies are estimated to make up two to three per cent of the total waste in municipal landfills. Fortunately Australia is a big country with room to spare; however, there are better things to do with our country than using it as a tip.

Cost

According to statistics from the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) 800 million disposable nappies are used in Australia every year.

Parents will fork out about $3,000-$5,000 per child in a three-year period, depending on brand.

It's estimated a baby requires $700 worth fitted cloth nappies. Add to this around $500 of washing expenses (detergent, electricity and wear and tear on your machine) and the total cost is about $1,200.

THE VERDICT

It's a super-tough call. One one hand you have waste created by disposables; on the other you have water use. The debate will likely be swayed when considering the myriad eco-fabrics now used in 'modern' cloth nappies

Studies from around the world have been done many times on this issue and have come up with conflicting results.

A study by the British government's Environment Agency said it was too close to call, noting that disposables had great global warming potential, but that cloth nappies used far more water.

Meanwhile, the Women's Environmental Network (WEN) in the UK stated that compared with reusables, disposables use 3.5 times more energy, 20 times more raw material, twice the amount of water in manufacturing and generate 60 times more non-biodegradable bacteria-laden waste.

The first Australian study into the impact of nappies is currently underway at the University of Queensland. Researcher, Kate O'Brien, says the results of the UQ study will be released later this year.