We’ve just used our last cloth nappy – it was hard work, but worth it

Lockdown seemed to be the right time to ‘encourage’ my three year old to stop using nappies for good. It presented us with the right circumstances – being at home lots, having plenty of time in the garden, consistent routines, fewer distractions and generally less rushing around between social events or childcare.

My three year old responded well to the cues, and has now cracked it. For both our children we used cloth instead of single-use nappies because it seemed better for the environment. Now I thought I’d take the time to check whether it actually was.

My stash of cloth nappies

Here’s what I found:

I saved a pile of money

4 nappies a day, 365 days a year, 3 years, 2 children.

That’s 8,760 nappy changes in all.

With cloth nappies, the cost splits into two – initial outlay and running costs:

  • Initial outlay – We bought around 30 second-hand washable nappies for an average of £7 each. That’s a total of £210. New nappies cost around £20 each, so would have cost me £600.
  • Running (washing) costs – According to my A++ rated washing machine manufacturer, a 40 degree wash uses 0.85 kWh of energy. Power costs me 14.41p per kWh, so each nappy wash cost me just over 12p per load. We did a nappy wash roughly 3 times a week, so over the course of the 5 years we used nappies, we did around 780 washes coming to around £95. If we’d used 60 degree washes, the total cost would have been just under £150. The drying and whitening came free from the wind and the sun.

Had we used single-use nappies, at about 20p per individual nappy, I’d have spent a whopping £1,752 in all.

£1,540 saved.

I saved a lot of carbon

A 2008 (admittedly quite old now) study by the Environment Agency looked at the environmental impact associated with the manufacture, use and disposal of nappies (both single-use and cloth) in the UK. The headline figures seemed to show little difference between the two: the single-use nappy had a “global warming impact” of 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents compared to 570kg for cloth. Not much of a difference.

But there was a lot hiding behind these figures – the impact of cloth nappies really varied depending on how they were washed and dried. Whereas most of the carbon impact of the single-use nappy comes from its production, most of the impact from the cloth alternative comes from their use. For example, you can cut the impact of cloth nappies by a massive 40% (to 342kg) simply by using them with a second child, by washing nappies on a full load, and by not using a tumble-drier (which we did).

So it’s what you do with your cloth nappies that counts. Buying cloth nappies gets you environmental credentials, but if you wash half loads at 90 degrees, then tumble dry them and don’t use them again for your second child, you might as well not have bothered.

200kg carbon equivalent saved.

I cut waste and environmental pollution

The Scottish Government aim to create a Zero Waste economy, with a target to ban biodegradable landfill by 2025 (it used to be 2021). If they are going to do something about this, nappies would be a good place to start.

According to Zero Waste Scotland, around 160 million nappies are sent to landfill in Scotland every year. It is said that single-use nappies take hundreds of years to decompose.

That means every nappy that’s ever been thrown away since single-use nappies were invented in the 1940s is very likely still there.

Cloth nappies are not only re-used hundreds of times, they are also mainly made of natural fibres, from bamboo to hemp and cotton (OK, there is a debate about how sustainable cotton really can be, and yes cloth nappies so have a layer of plastic laminated on the outer wrap). Then there’s the pollution from landfill. With cloth nappies, the human waste goes down the wastewater pipe, which gets treated. With single-used nappies, the waste can leach out untreated.

Single-use nappies are made of plastics, bleached wood pulp, gels, dyes, latex and other elastics. Even the nappies that brand themselves as ‘biodegradable’ only claim to be ‘made of 60 to 80% biodegradable material’ – none are actually fully biodegradable. And the use of the term ‘biodegradable’ must be loosely applied. Landfill – being compacted and covered – is definitely not the right environment for any kind of decomposition to take place very effectively.

I did an experiment, trying to simulate what would happen when a single-use nappy was thrown into landfill and got wet. When dry, it weighs a mere 31g, but when filled with water, increases to 1.5kg and swells up like a balloon:

Remember how many single-use nappies we would have used? 1,870 nappies saved from landfill.

Hard work, but worth it

I completely acknowledge that single-use nappies top the convenience charts. When faced with a scary, shouty newborn, a massive change in your life and priorities, the last thing you want to have to think about it washing and drying dirty nappies. There have been a few times where I have cursed the stinky bucket next to the washing machine or the awful weather for not drying them in time.

But on days when it didn’t work, it was too hard, we were on holiday or when grandparents were on duty, we just used single-use nappies. There’s no point

It is certainly true that it takes more effort, more time and logistical planning to use cloth nappies. You need to remember to put the machine on, you need to change them more often, you need to carry around dirty nappies with you or bring them home from nursery at the end of the day. Then there’s all sorts of weird rules that apply to cloth nappies, like not using oil-based nappy rash creams, or not using fabric conditioner.

After 5 years of using them, I can confidently say that cloth nappies are a great, environmentally positive choice for new parents. There’s no point in killing yourself in an effort to be green by never deigning to use a single-use nappy. By all means, use a half and half approach – every cloth nappy used will help. Every action counts. Give them a go!

What YOU can do

  • Look up on social media if you have a nappy library near you – they provide fantastic help for cloth nappy learners, and may even loan you some kit to try
  • If you’re having a baby in Scotland, look in your Baby Box and use the voucher to try out a cloth nappy.

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