Cloth Nappies

I have never been keen on arguments against 'eco-mummies' or 'crunchy mummies' that seem to centre on the idea that being pro-environment is somehow anti-scientific. Climate change is real science as is the burden of pollution on the environment. As parents, I feel that we should be more aware of this and more sensitive to our impacts on our environment and yet all the research seems to show that new parents engage in more energy consuming practices than the rest of the population.
Some of the reasons however is that pro-environmental factors can be blindly followed without any assessment of the real impact. A great example of this is that of cloth nappies - an essential hallmark of the 'eco-mum' movement. Several studies have come out indicating that cloth nappies are actually not much better than disposables yet many refuse to acknowledge these findings. The argument seems to be that cloth nappies, no matter how they are cared for or purchased, are superior than disposable nappies that have a huge eco-footprint and lay in landfill for thousands of years.
It is true that when you lay out the bare facts of disposable nappies, they sound bad for the environment.


  • Oil derived plastics 1
  • Fluff pulp' requires the clearing of about 1.8 million trees annually 1
  • Require more 'energy' over the 2.5 year lifecycle than cloth nappies 2


  • Can contain TBT that disrupts immune and hormonal systems of shellfish 1
  • Dioxin traces are found in chlorine-bleached disposable nappies 1 
  • Concerns about adverse health effects from sodium polycarbonate and contaminants of wood pulp.


  • Contributes to land fill - takes thousands of years to break down 1
  • When rotting generates methane gas and lechate, a toxic liquid 1
  • In poorly managed landfills, waste can leak into the earth contaminating the ground water 1

Yet in reality the overall effect of disposable nappies has been considered to be minor 3. The greatest impact is to do with the greenhouse gas emissions involved with manufacture which represent 0.03% of Australian annual emissions, however these effects are comparable to home laundered cloth nappies 3

Cloth nappies can be better for the environment than disposables under certain conditions. Unlike disposables, the majority of the environmental impact of cloth nappies has to do with ongoing behaviour during their use rather than their manufacture. The greatest impact being in energy and water used in washing which is significantly more than disposables over the same time frame 2. If they are used on a second child, washed in full loads at 60 degrees or less and line dried they can be 40% better for the environment however if they are used on one child only and dried in a clothes drier they can be 50% worse for the environment 6. Nappies should also be washed at home versus commercially.
The impact of the cloth nappy is not in the cute cloth nappy but rather in the habits that are involved in the daily slog of washing.
For the best impact nappies should be:

  • Washed in biodegradable, phosphate free detergents 7
  • Buying enough nappies that can wait until a full load to wash (as biggest impact is in washing and not production)
  • Washing in cold water
  • Washing in a front loading machine
  • Line drying
  • No fabric softener
  • Using on more than one child
Eco-friendly disposable nappies by the way are also not the answer. Several studies have shown that compostable or biodegradable nappies use the most energy 2 , require the most land area 2 and do not degrade well in a landfill setting 1

A quick note about health impacts of nappies
Often in talk about nappies there is concerns about nappy rash being higher in cloth or adverse health effects from disposable nappy use. There is no evidence to support any concern about adverse health effects from disposable nappy use. Likewise, a cochrane review concluded there was insufficent evidence to state that disposable nappies decreased the risk of nappy rash.
One health issue that is not discussed is the increased transmission of fecal-oral diseases. Cloth nappies are more likely to leak contaminating hands and surrounding items resulting in increased spread of gastrointestinal illnesses, particularly in daycare centres or homes with multiple children 4. Most gastrointestinal illnesses will be mostly inconvenient however there is also an increased risk of more serious conditions such e coli. As such it is worth making sure that your cloth nappies have a cover are a good fit and unlikely to leak or that they are covered with a leak proof cover.


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