Due mainly to what may be personal prejudices about cost and environmental savings, we decided fairly early on that we’d like to give cloth nappies a go. I’ll let you know how I get on, and will be adding some reviews in the coming months of various brands of nappies I will be trying.
Killing time now with one week to due date, I thought it was high time to take a look in a bit more detail at the debate: Is there a solid argument behind what seems like a common sense decision in environmental and financial terms.
In 2005 the Environment Agency published a report in which – and I paraphrase – they said they weren’t sure what all the fuss was about, and found that the environmental impact of disposable vs. reusable was pretty much equal at best, taking account the energy use of washing cloth nappies. Depending mainly I suspect on existing prejudices, this was greeted either by a sighs of relief or gnashing of teeth and decrying of the reports methodology which, to take a few examples, assumed the majority of nappies were washed between 60° and 90°c using a not very efficient machine; that at least 19% were tumble dried and 9.5% were ironed (tell me it’s not true), and did not allow for reusing nappies for a second or subsequent child, or for buying second hand. For a few more comments on this, see one parent’s response in The Guardian.
In 2008 the Environment Agency
changed their mind reassessed based on new data on disposable nappy manufacture and on updated data on reusable nappy behavioural assumptions, in addition to widening the possible scenarios for use of either type of nappies, producing An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies. While not a condemning disposables outright (although not assessing their landfill impact beyond the CO2 impact) , did recognise that sensible environmentally friendly methods of reusable nappy use – use as full a load as possible in an energy efficient machine, wash at 40° (using a biodegradable liner) to 60°c as recommended by manufacturers, try not to tumble dry, and for pity’s sake, don’t iron the nappies – will produce a lower environmental impact than disposables (full user-friendly summary here):
The average 2006 disposable nappy would result in a global warming impact of approximately 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents used over the two and a half years a child is typically in nappies. The global warming impact from disposable nappies use has decreased since the previous study…
For reusable nappies, the baseline scenario based on average washer and drier use produced a global warming impact of approximately 570kg of carbon dioxide equivalents. However, the study showed that the impacts for reusable nappies are highly dependent on the way they are laundered.
Washing the nappies in fuller loads or line-drying them outdoors all the time (ignoring UK climatic conditions for the purposes of illustration) was found to reduce this figure by 16 per cent. Combining three of the beneficial scenarios (washing nappies in a fuller load, outdoor line drying all of the time, and reusing nappies on a second child) would lower the global warming impact by 40 per cent from the baseline scenario, or some 200kg of carbon dioxide equivalents over the two and a half years, equal to driving a car approximately 1,000 km.
So, with the obvious caveat that if you do use what the EA report considers ‘average washer and drier use’ (see page 9 of the report for all the gory details) you’re not saving any carbon at all for a single child compared to using disposables, I take this as a green light to go ahead and do what seemed obvious to me anyway. Reusable nappies do not automatically have a lower CO2 impact than disposables, but you have the control ensure that they do.
The landfill arguments are more clearcut: Pollution Issues notes that
By the time they reach two and a half, an average child will have used approximately 6,500 nappies – which equates to over 10 tonnes of waste, 40 black sacks per child per year or if you prefer a colourful image, as many as 70,000 double-decker buses stretching end to end from Edinburgh to London
Of course, biodegradable nappies rot quicker, but produce plenty of the greenhouse gas methane on the way.
Stopping work, for nine months at least, will have enough of a financial impact on our lives, added to all the additional costs of having a child, so the possible cost benefits are at least as important a consideration for me. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve found locating a rigorous cost comparison to be more difficult than an environmental one.
Lifetime cost estimates for disposable nappies vary from £600 (Baby Centre) to £820 (The Nappy Lady) or even as high as £1274 (The Cloth Nappy Tree). In all honesty, most of these comparisons are probably a bit out of date, so here’s my own to throw into the mix, using as objective measures as possible:
Cost per nappy: 17p (based on average costs for Pampers today buying online at Tesco)
Number of changes a day: 4.16 (based on EA report – at the lower end of the range I’d assume)
Number of nappies a week: 7 * 4.16 = 29.12
Number of nappies in 2.5 years: 29.12 * 52 * 2.5 = 3786
Cost over 2.5 years use: 3786 * 0.17 = £644
The initial purchase cost of reusables is likely to vary even more depending on what type you choose to use, with terry squares and prefolds and one size, generally having a lower overall cost that sized, shaped systems, but the Real Nappy Information Service estimate these between £50 (pins and pants) and £700 (sized pocket nappies), with most options coming in at around the £250-£300 mark – less if your council offers a subsidy. Source: Go Real.
The costs of washing (with no tumble drying) are estimated by Baby Centre at £80, although I’d be inclined to add a little to this at current prices.
So, we’re looking at a very approximate cost of £644 for disposables, compared to around £400 for resuables, with reusables costing significantly less for any subsequent children.
Again, the cost argument isn’t probably weighty enough on it’s own if you simply prefer the convenience of disposables. Overall though, for me the option of spending less for better environmental outcomes, particularly in terms of waste, seems the obvious choice. I’m not planning to be fascist about this, and am quite sure I’ll be using disposable nappies at times, but fingers crossed this will work for us.
Note: You might also find this article from the BBC, although a few years old now, of interest. If you’re really keen, you might also be interested in the University of Queensland’s Life Cycle Assessment: Reusable and disposable nappies in Australia.