Cloth Nappies: Demystifying the Myths
in Sustainability on Cloth Nappies, Plastic Free
I have written this post in celebration of Real Nappy Week 2019, running from 22nd - 26th April. Over the last 12 months or so there appears to have been a significant rise in people using reusable products, possibly in response to how Blue Planet outlined the big environmental problems we currently face. When I first started using cloth nappies on Roscoe I felt like the odd one out, the slightly weird one. Announcing the fact we use cloth to a group of parent friends made me feel similar to how I felt when I said I eat mostly vegan. I felt I was slightly judged for veering away from the cultural norm and daring to be a little different. More recently however, I feel there has been a surge in families starting to use cloth nappies on their babes. We are still a minority of course but I can sense now that it just might, one day, become mainstream.
Many articles written about cloth nappies focus on outlining the environmental benefits of using cloth over disposables, and whilst I am not belittling the fact that here in the UK we throw away 3 billion nappies to landfill or incineration each year, I feel positive, encouraging conversations are the way forward. Lining up all the negatives of disposables just creates a them vs. us mentality, if we are going to tackle the plastic pollution successfully we need to work together and with balance in mind.
Through a number of conversations I've had with other families, expectant parents and friends over the past couple of years I have made a list of the most common negative myths, or potential barriers, people face when they are thinking of using cloth nappies. My aim is to write this in a completely non-judgemental way, I have no wish to come across as preachy, and I hope this list may help other families wishing to produce little cloth-bummed babes.
1. They are too disgusting
This. This is almost always the first thing people say when the topic of cloth nappies comes up. But aren't they disgusting to clean? What do you do with the poo? Do you put poo in your washing machine? I believe the answer is simply that you have to deal with the poo anyway, regardless of the nappy you use, and at least with cloth the poo is put straight down the loo where it belongs, not sat stagnating in a plastic bag in a nappy bin until said bin is full. The poo is tipped straight down the loo and I hold the nappy under the toilet flush to get rid of any stubborn bits. I also cold rinse my nappies as soon as possible after wearing to try get rid of the urine before storing in the nappy pail. Although specks of poo on the nappy will end up in the washing machine, full turds absolutely do not go in there. If I'm particularly worried about the cleanliness of my washing machine, I will clean the machine by putting a sterilising tablet in the drum and running an empty load (though I only do this once every couple of months or so).
2. They are too complicated to use
Again, many people think they can't be bothered with the extra complications. I'm sure any parent using cloth nappies has come across others giving them the whole I don't have time/it's unhygienic/it's too complicated stance. In reality whilst I wouldn't say using and caring for cloth nappies is complicated, I would say it requires a little more effort than disposables. Depending on your priorities this will be something you're willing to put in or not, from a sustainability standpoint, I am 100% willing to put that extra effort in. It might seem a little more complicated when you first start using cloth, looking into different brands and experimenting with different ways of washing them all requires time and effort, but once you're found what works for you and your babes, it just becomes second nature.
3. Using cloth nappies is expensive
This is one point I am particularly passionate about, especially as there have been a few articles recently discussing people spending hundreds of pounds on cloth nappies in order to build up huge collections. This is absolutely not necessary. If you calculated how much you would spend on all the disposables you would need to take your mini up to potty training, it would be over £1000! Compare this to spending £200-300 on 20 reusable nappies which will last from baby to toddler. That is a significant saving not to be ignored. Cloth nappies are also available second hand, there is a growing community of families on social media using cloth, it has never been easier to source second hand nappies. Doing this also means you are giving the nappies a new life so one set of cloth could last multiple children across a number of families, much better environmentally than buying new. Additionally cloth nappy libraries exist in many areas which allow you to try different brands and styles before committing to buying any, this way you shouldn't buy any that you're not going to use. It is also worth checking out incentive schemes run by local councils. We are based in Leeds at the moment who run a trial pack/cash back scheme. Families can either get a free trial pack consisting of two nappies with liners and care instructions or can apply to get £30 cash back after spending £50 on new or second hand reusable nappies.
4. You Can't Travel With Cloth Nappies
Travelling whilst using cloth nappies definitely requires more organisation than not using them but also comes with the satisfaction of not leaving waste everywhere you go. If we are going for a long weekend away, I will just take a few wet bags and enough cloth nappies to last then do one big washing load when we get home. When we've travelled long term in the past I've taken around 10/12 nappies and always made sure there was a washing machine I was able to use in our accommodation. Sometimes this didn't always work out, especially whilst travelling around SE Asia for 3 months last year, and we ended up using a mixture of cloth and disposable depending on the circumstances. A gentle reminder that this is not an all or nothing conversation, it is OK to use both together.
5. They Are Not That Environmentally Friendly
I've had this conversation more times than I can remember and it almost always stems from a belief that the water needed to care for cloth nappies makes their use just as environmentally damaging as using disposables. From an eco perspective disposable nappies are usually talked about as a carbon emission problem, sending them to landfill or incinerator notoriously emits greenhouse gases. The full environmental impact of using cloth or disposable nappies is much more complex than this though and involves, amongst other things, the water used to manufacture and maintain them. For example, a life cycle analysis conducted by the Environmental Agency back in 2008 reported that the environmental impact from the manufacture of disposable nappies is greater than the impact due to their waste management. The report also concluded that reusables are 40% better for the environment than disposables but after a quick skim through I have some issues with this report. For instance, they only assessed the impact of disposables up to the point of purchase and not their waste management yet the impact of both manufacture and consumer use (washing the nappies) were considered for reusables. I would say much more research is required in this area but I estimate that percentage to be much higher in reality. Maybe I should conduct my PhD on looking at the environmental impact of various different types of nappy, would that be really weird?
Most cloth nappies can be washed at 40° on a normal cycle and it is best to hang dry them outside where the sunshine naturally deodorises, sanitises and bleaches them. I also wash our nappies with our clothes if I don't have enough for a full load, which minimises the amount of washes we need to do. The waste water from our washing machines goes through the sewerage system where it is either extracted and used to make fertiliser or filtered to be used once more, completing the circular process. On the contrary, the manufacturing process for disposable nappies is very dirty, creating waste water which is much harder to deal with. Disposable nappies are made from plastic and wood pulp, around 7 million trees are cut down to make pulp for single-use nappies in the UK alone. Not to mention the plastic required to make disposable nappies. We throw away around 3 billion single-use nappies every year, each taking approximately 500 years to decompose and as mentioned above, emitting all kinds of greenhouse gases in the process. Obviously, cloth nappy manufacture also uses water to grow the cotton and bamboo required but the fact these nappies are reusable reduces their environmental impact dramatically.
6. You Need To Buy Different Sizes as Baby Grows
This used to be a common misconception but is absolutely not true. Most nappy brands sell one size nappies that fit babies from a few weeks old all the way to potty training. The poppers on the front of the nappy allow for size adjustment along the way. Most aren't recommended for newborns however so it is always worth checking out the second hand market for newborn cloth and then selling them on when you've done. Young babies grow fast and will have outgrown them in a couple of months so no point buying new unless you have to.
7. You Need To Buy Special Detergent To Wash Them
Once again, this is just not true. Although all nappy brands have specific care instructions that it is worth taking note of, most are fine washing at 40° with non-bio detergent. Which detergent and washing routine works best for your nappies will depend on the nappies themselves and also the water hardness in your area, easily found on the website of your water supplier. I use the Ecoegg and a few drops of essential oil and I've never had an issue. If the nappies start to get a little smelly I strip them by washing at 60° and do two extra rinse cycles without detergent. You can buy extra nappy sanitizers that supposedly make them more fresh when they come out of the wash but I rarely bother - remember sunshine is the best sanitizer! Also, it is generally a good idea to wash any new nappies a couple of times before wear to fluff up the fibres and make them more absorbent. It's all about finding out what works for you, it may take a little time to get your washing routine down, but once there the whole thing becomes easy.
8. Cloth May Give Baby a Rash
This is obviously very dependent on the situation, but generally it's not that cloth nappies can give baby a rash but more that they prevent any treatment. If there is some underlying skin condition, such as eczema, wearing cloth can become difficult as it is not advised to apply any topical creams under cloth in case it damages the fibres in the nappies. When we have needed to apply a cream for whatever reason in the past, we have used the occasional single-use nappy. At the end of the day it is all about balance and whilst I try reduce our impact with everything I do, health is a greater priority. On a different note, if cloth nappies are leaving red marks AND smelling very strongly of ammonia, it is best to take extra care. In this case the nappies have a build up of ammonia which can burn baby's skin, even leaving open sores if not treated. If you're worried this has happened it is best to strip the nappies a couple of times, ensure lots of nappy free time and change the nappy a little more frequently than you would have done otherwise until the red marks heal. If you're really worried, always make an appointment with a doctor. Classic nappy rash on the other hand is much more common with disposables than cloth, so as long as the cloth nappies are cared for properly there is less chance of experiencing a rash problem overall.
9. Can Only Buy Cloth Nappies Online
I do think that one of the main barriers we now come across as cloth nappy use is rising is the visibility of them. People who have always been interested in sustainable parenting will have sourced them by whatever means possible, be that word of mouth or online. What is stopping cloth from becoming mainstream is their availability to all. Most of the information surrounding cloth remains online, as does their accessibility. Times are changing though and cloth nappies can now be found in zero waste/refill stores up and down the country as well as Waitrose and occasionally Aldi when they do their special baby events. The average consumer however, will not come across them unless they go digging, and this needs to change. Talking to local councils should hopefully be able to inform you of incentive schemes and point you in the direction of nearby cloth nappy libraries, but this isn't enough. We need to push for information to be readily available at midwife appointments, prenatal scans, nurseries, daycare, playgroups and in all stores selling baby-related products, until eventually, using cloth just becomes the new normal.
10. Cloth Nappies Take Ages To Dry
If you only have enough nappies to last a couple of days chances are you need them to dry rather quickly after a wash, or at least overnight. The problem being that whilst bamboo is great at making nappies very absorbent, it also takes longer to dry than cotton clothes. However there are tips to increase drying time. Most nappies can be tumble-dried although excessive use can damage them so best to do this sparingly if possible. We all know hanging them outside in the sunshine and wind will do an excellent job of drying them, alas we don't always have such fine weather available to us. In that case, drying inside is perfectly fine, just make sure to place them in an area of high airflow and as high as possible (due to the fact heat rises). We normally put our nappies on an airer near a radiator or, in the warmer months, over the bannister upstairs near an open window. If you're struggling with getting nappies dry in time maybe try get some extra inserts or boosters which will make outer wraps last longer without spending money on a complete new nappy.
If you are interested in finding out more you can check out our cloth nappy routine here here or find out more about our cloth nappy journey here. Other websites to check out are The Nappy Lady, TotsBots, BambinoMio, Babipur and Ecotots. Do leave any particular questions or thoughts below, I always love hearing from you.
Thanks for reading.
Environment Agency, 2008, An Updated Life Cycle Assessment Study for Disposable and Reusable Nappies.
Environment Agency, 2005, Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK.