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Covering the Other End – Considering Cloth Nappies

Brooke Benoit shows how the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of using cloth rather than disposable nappies.

My mother fondly recalls the days when she would bundle me up in my snow gear, putting me into my little red wagon along with a big stash of soiled cloth nappies, and then would drag us along to the laundrette for the twice-weekly nappy-washing days. It must have been my gregarious baby disposition which made this chore of cleaning poop-covered packages so lovingly remembered. Soon enough, she began using a nappy delivery service, but I hear that she still had to do the dirty work of getting the “Number 2s” off before exchanging them for a batch of fresh ones. None of my mum’s nostalgia encouraged my eco-conscious self to try cloth nappies with my first child. I fleetingly considered cloth nappies, but I vaguely remember convincing myself that surely the water used in the washing process must be just as environmentally hazardous as the use of disposable nappies. And with that, I bought disposables – many, many disposables.


Decisions, decisions
Margari Aziza Hill, an educator and writer in the US, had a far more pragmatic approach to deciding whether to cloth or not, “Initially, I considered cloth nappies as a solution to a waste disposal problem in our second story row home apartment. We can only take out trash once a week. I am really not a fan of nappy genies and the thought of storing stinky, poopy nappies for a week really repulsed me. That led me to think about the long term effects of disposable nappies and the environment. But even more important than that, I considered cloth nappies while I was pregnant because I figured my daughter would inherit my sensitive skin. After talking to my mum and mother-in-law, I began doing a lot of research on cloth nappies. I spent weeks putting together comparison charts on hybrid nappies and all-in-ones. I called two cloth laundering services for demos and ultimately decided on pre-folds with covers.”


Good for baby
Surprisingly, babies wearing cloth nappies are far less likely to get nappy rashes; about 5% of cloth-using babies do as opposed to 50% of disposable users. Though disposable nappies don’t feel wet to the touch the way cloth does, all that moisture is still trapped inside the plastic next to baby’s skin. Even premium disposable nappies, which feel more paper or cloth-like, are made with non-ventilating plastics. These plastics are also a big part of the reason that disposables truly are more environmentally hazardous.


Good for the earth
We’ve all likely heard that disposable nappies are one of the major contributors to landfill sites with an estimated 7.6 billion pounds of nappies thrown away annually across the globe. And perhaps you’ve considered the problem of non-renewable fossil fuels used to make the plastic in disposable nappies. But there is even more detrimental impact from using disposables. The research in Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women’s Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers demonstrates that disposable nappies produce sixty times more solid waste and use twenty times more raw materials, like crude oil and wood pulp, than cloth nappies. When you include the manufacturing process for disposable nappies, they use 2.3 times more water than washing cloth and also produce an immense amount of chemical waste, such as the chlorine used to bleach the wood pulp and the harmful dioxins created in this process.


My concerns about over-using water and electricity with cloth nappy washing were ridiculous when compared to how much water and energy are used to make and distribute disposable nappies. Oh yes, and disposable nappies are packaged in plastic and cardboard and delivered to stores by fossil fuel-burning vehicles and usually picked up by car driving consumers – all of this waste is eliminated when you buy reusable cloth nappies just once and wash them at home. But even if using a nappy delivery service, the benefits of reusing cloth outweigh the delivery aspect – the water and energy used in washing cloth nappies is infinitesimal compared to the energy used on disposables.


Perfecting your personal system
It’s absolutely true that using cloth nappies takes a little more attention than using disposables. When making these sort of green parenting decisions, for me, it’s similar to how some people are willing to make their own coffee and some folks prefer to get in their car (or walk, bus or bike) and go and buy coffee served in a paper cup – everyone decides for themselves when, where and how much of a commitment they are willing to make to environmentally-friendly lifestyle changes. I change my baby’s cloth nappy a little more frequently than I would disposable, and I wash them at home every other day or so, but this is not a major inconvenience for me. Margari’s system includes using disposables when she is on outings and exclusively cloth at home, mostly because she finds the disposables faster to change. Still, she is tinkering with her system, using disposables less and less, while considering investing in some of the slightly more pricey but convenient ‘all-in-ones’ for outings.


Cost considerations
Ultimately the reuse factor in cloth nappies makes huge financial savings when compared to using disposables. Disposable nappies, not including disposable wipes, can cost around $3500/£2500 over an average 30 months of use. Cloth nappies generally cost about $100-300/£60-200 to start up a collection, but that is your final cost unless you add on bits over the years or use fancier cloth, and of course there is the added cost of washing the cloth nappies which will vary greatly depending on how and where you are washing them. Likewise, cloth nappies can be made fairly easily, especially if you have a sewing machine, and they can be made by repurposing materials on hand, such as sheets, flannel cloths, towels and so on. And of course, cloth nappies can be reused for several children.


The “squee” factor
Aside from all the feel-good oxytocin you’ll get from knowing you are doing a right thing by using cloth, many parents find themselves “addicted to cloth nappies” because they are so cute! There is an enormous cottage industry of work-at home-mums making adorable varieties of cloth nappies – check sites like eBay and Etsy to see what I mean.


A good first stop to learning more about using cloth nappies is www.realdiaperassociation.org.


While you are contemplating the green benefits of using cloth, you may also be considering the “yuck” factor of cleaning them. Just as there are many styles of nappies, there are many ways to clean them. Though some mums have very involved cleaning techniques, I’m a no-fuss mum and simply remove the solids (or semi-solids of my breastfed babies) just as we should for disposables, and then let my machine do the rest of the work.


Whether your concerns about using cloth nappies are ecological, dermatological, hygienic or aesthetic, a good first stop to learning more about using cloth nappies is www.realdiaperassociation.org. If you are ready to jump into the cloth nappies fold, many nappy sellers have “starter-kits” to lessen the stress of picking and choosing or you could even rent cloth nappies, check out the ‘Directory of Newborn Cloth Diaper Rental Programs” at http://allaboutclothdiapers.com. Happy nappies!


Brooke Benoit prefers wool nappy covers and organic pre-folds. With her extremely limited sewing skills, she recently made a cover for the first time from a repurposed wool sweater; unfortunately it fits her better than her new baby.