The unfortunate truth about “eco” nappies (and what you can do about it)

The biodegradable nappy myth

With my wife and I expecting our first baby in the coming weeks, two things made me think it was important to look into reusable nappies.

1. By the time they are potty trained, a baby will have used 4,000 to 6,000 disposable nappies.

2. A “biodegradable” nappy – one that’s not made from plastic – that ends up in landfill is worse for climate change than a disposable nappy.

The first point is unsurprising and even more startling at a national level. An estimated 3 billion nappies are thrown away each year in the UK, accounting for 2-3% of all household waste.

The second point is counter-intuitive and probably requires more explanation. A biodegradable nappy will only biodegrade as intended if it ends up in either a large, well-managed personal compost heap or a council food / garden waste commercial composter. Less than 50% of UK households have such a collection and many simply do not have the space for their own compost heap. So for the majority of babies in the UK their biodegradable nappies will end up in landfill or being burnt. 

And here’s the crux: in a covered and compressed landfill site, biodegradable nappies (and their contents) will decompose anaerobically, releasing methane – which is around 34 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A normal disposable nappy made out of plastic will actually produce fewer harmful emissions.

As for reusable nappies – made to wash and use again – it’s true that it does take more energy to put them through the washing machine than to throw disposables in the bin. However, there are a number of ways to minimise this. The days of boil-washing are gone, as modern reusables can be washed at 60 or even 40 degrees. If drying space is an issue for you, then there are many brands which dry fast without a tumble-dryer. And to top it all off, you can sign-up for 100% renewable electricity for your home, meaning that the energy you are using will be coming from green sources in any case.

The reusable nappy revolution

So, that set me off on a journey to discover if there was a realistic alternative to disposables. What I found was actually pretty encouraging. 

This blog is not meant to be preachy or naive and I’m acutely aware that it is written before the realities of having a newborn baby have hit. It is simply intended to help those who, like I did, feel uncomfortable about throwing away 1000s of nappies and want to explore what alternatives are out there…

Oh, and one other word of warning. If you are the eco-warrior in the household then please be sensitive to your partner in any nappy discussions, particularly if they are going to be the one at home with the baby and thus doing the majority of the changing. Whatever solution you come up with, it needs to work for you both.

Now, be honest, when you think of a reusable nappy does your mind conjure up something that looks a bit like this…?

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It certainly did for me. But the good news is that a modern reusable nappy actually looks like this…

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Indeed, they are now so snazzy that there is now a “cloth bumming” trend (yes, that is really what it’s called…) taking Instagram by storm!

So, now that you can see how reusable nappies will make your baby the envy of the creche, how do you go about finding the right ones?

There’s no right answer, but here’s what worked well for us…

Firstly, we used this excellent questionnaire on The Nappy Lady website. It asks you a wide range of questions and then gives you two recommendations. For us, ensuring that they would be simple to use and dry quickly in our small flat (with very limited outdoor space) were the two biggest priorities. 

Secondly, some of your friends and family with babies will already be using reusable nappies. Ask them which have worked best for them.  This gave us a shortlist of half a dozen reusable nappies and – using the The Nappy Lady’s reviews – we picked those that might be best for us. 

“Might” is an important word here. There are wise warnings about reusables not working for all newborns, so you will want to make sure that the brand you have chosen is a good fit. What you don’t want to do is buy loads in advance and then not be able to use them (though I hear there is a thriving second-hand market in reusable nappies too…). This is easy to get around: many brands have trial packs, or you can buy a few and use them alongside disposable nappies in the first few weeks until you are confident they are a good match for your baby.

Why not throw in some cheeky wipes?

A quick note on baby wipes. While not such a big issue from a climate change perspective, the UK has woken up to the damage that wet wipes are doing to our sewers and our seas. There’s even a suggestion that the UK Government could ban them.

Lucky enough, this is an easy one to do something about.

One option is flushable wipes, with businesses scrambling to make their offerings better for the world. 

A more sustainable option still are Cheeky Wipes, the worst kept secret in baby class circles where I have been spending a lot of time recently. Parents across the UK swear by them, as being better for your baby and cheaper in the long run.

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I hope this has given you a good head start in your quest to throw away fewer nappies. I’ll report back on how we are getting on in a few months…

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