How to be a Greener Cloth Nappy User

There has been a lot of talk about cloth nappies lately and I have heard many people refer to some research done in the UK by The Environmental Agency¹ saying washing cloth nappies has just as much impact on the environment as disposables.

This study has however been strongly criticized by The Women’s Environmental Network² (WEN) for statistical inaccuracies due to the small sample size of the cloth nappy users (117 but further reduced to only 32 users of terry squares for the report) compared to disposable nappy users (2000).

The biggest area of concern when reading The Environmental Agency’s research is the washing method that it studied. Traditionally terry squares were washed at very high temperatures and soaked in chemical sanitizers. I still get questions about whether nappies need to be boiled and soaked in chemicals before washing. By basing the above study on these washing methods is not taking into account the more modern washing recommendations by the manufactures of shaped cloth nappy, which are fast becoming the most popular form of reusable nappies. No allowance was also given for the decrease in impact of second hand nappies.

My son (due to be born next month) will be reusing all his sister’s nappies, and I hope that the second hand market for cloth nappies will grow in South Africa as it has in the UK and USA, not only amongst siblings, but also in nappies being resold.

What we need to take from this report is that not all washing methods can be considered equal in their environmental footprint. There is a lot that cloth nappy users can do to make a noticeable reduction in the environmental impact. WEN concluded that significant energy savings can be made when using 24 nappies, washing at no more than 60°C in an A-rated washing machine thus cutting the contribution to global warming by 17% compared to the 47 nappies and washing methods suggested by The Environmental Agency’s research.

Greener ways to reduce the environmental impact of using cloth nappies:
  • If financially possible, choose nappies made from organic cotton, hemp or bamboo which are grown with less impact on the environment.
  • Buy nappies from a local supplier – most imported nappies are flown into the country causing huge carbon emissions.
  • Buy second hand nappies or reuse nappies with subsequent babies.
  • Avoid soaking. Dry store nappies in a bucket with a close fitted lid. If you do soak avoid using sanitizers. Rather use a natural agent like lavender oil or an organic nappy soak like that available from Enchantrix.
  • Nappies that are wet only can be washed at 40°C and soiled nappies at a maximum of 60°C
  • Use a washable nappy liner
  • Avoid PVC waterproof covers
  • Make sure your washing machine has an A rating for energy efficiency and if your machine does not adjust the water volume to the weight of the load automatically then always wash a full load. Towels and other items of clothes can be added to make a full load.
  • Use an environmentally friendly washing detergent. Organic laundry liquid is available from Enchantrix
  • Do not use a fabric softener, it reduces the absorbency of the nappies and is an unnecessary chemical pollutant. White Spirit Vinegar can be added to the final rise water if you feel softening is required.
  • Line or air dry where ever possible and avoid using the tumble dryer.
  • Nappies never need to be ironed
  • Sell or pass on your nappies when you are finished with them.

Using the above methods will certainly make using cloth nappies much more environmentally friendly than disposables. As parents we do, after all, have a responsibility to the children we are raising to limit the damage we do to this planet, and try to repair some of the damage we have already done.

1) The Environmental Agency Report:
2) The Women’s Environmental Network comments:
Other source of information: Twinkle-Twinkle