Nappies and the Environment

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Nappies. They smell. They’re bulky. They explode. But they also make things a lot more convenient and cleaner than not using nappies.

My little boy Rupert is almost 7 months old and I’ve always felt a little guilty when I buy nappies or put out the nappy bin every day or two thinking not only am I spending a motza on these things, but I’m also contributing a lot of waste to landfill. Before I had Rupert I’d planned to start out using disposables because becoming a parent was going to be work enough for those first few months. But I’d always had in mind to try out cloth/reusable nappies so that I could cut back on the waste I was creating. I didn’t want to fully invest in cloth nappies straight out because they can be expensive and I wasn’t sure that I’d like them but conveniently my sister had passed something like 10-15 on to me (in a range of different brands) for me to try out.

So when Ru hit 10 weeks, we had settled into newborn life, we’d made it through Christmas and New Years and I was spending a lot of time stuck inside in the stinking 40+ degree heat so I figured it was the right time to try out reusable nappies.

My experience had positives and negatives and to cut it short I was not convinced to become fully cloth nappy committed and I continue to buy disposables. I’m now in a routine where Rupert wears disposables overnight (so I don’t have to change his nappy) and when we go out, but for days spent at home we use reusables. So, each week that tends to look like 2 or 3 days of reusables and then the rest of the week - disposables.

As I’d come to this conclusion about still needing/choosing to use disposables when out I thought I’d better look into the biodegradable or environmentally friendly disposables so I could feel like I was at least putting some effort in there too. So, I thought I’d share what I’ve found from scouring through the internet at some of the options available in Australia.

From what I’ve gathered there’s a couple of aspects to nappy use that are concerning to the environment. Firstly, manufacture – the processes and materials used to produce a nappy. And secondly, the breakdown or end life of a nappy. Of course there are many other things to consider about nappy use and a big part of the ‘green-nappy’ marketing is the claim that their nappies are better for babies skin etc due to less chemicals, perfumes and dyes being used but in this episode I’m more interested in the environmental impact of nappy use rather than what is nicer on your baby’s bum.

Just quickly though, I’ll touch on this concern that regular disposable nappies are linked to skin conditions, reproductive, respiratory and immune system issues. From what I can tell when looking further into the research it seems that overall the use of chemicals like dioxins, sodium polyacrylate, dyes and perfumes in regular disposable nappies is at such a low level that it is unlikely to have negative health effects to babies. I’ll break down what I’ve found about each of those chemicals.

  • Dioxins which are created when wood pulp (which provides cushioning and absorption) is bleached with chlorine is believed to cause cancer. However, a study in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives estimated kids are exposed to millions more dioxins in their diet than by nappies and the most dangerous dioxins are not found in nappies at all.

  • Sodium Polyacrylate which is the gel like substance used for absorption has been linked to toxic shock syndrome through its past use in tampons however when used externally in a nappy no cases of TSS have ever been reported. The chemical is considered non-toxic by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration and in itself is not irritating to skin.

  • Dyes used in the external patterns and pictures of nappies have been found to be linked with allergic reactions, but very rarely

  • Perfumes have been thought to cause allergic reactions also, however the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health says the amount of perfume in a typical scented nappy is approx. a million times too low to cause any issues.

So, from my perspective, when trying to find a nappy that is safest for my baby, yes a chemical and dye free nappy will probably have least risk for any reactions, but most babies without known skin conditions like eczema etc should be perfectly safe wearing regular disposable nappies.

So, in terms of environmental impact with disposable nappies, let’s look at:

Manufacture –

In the book “Your Water Footprint” by Stephen Leahy he points out the water footprint of one cloth nappy (assuming it is used 50 times) is 15 litres which compares with a single, disposable nappy having a water footprint of 545 litres. So, in terms of water usage, disposables are much less environmentally friendly.

The manufacture of most disposables tends to use finite resources which contributes highly to global warming. Therefore, some of the biggest carbon footprint reductions that can be made in the disposable nappy industry is through production and use of raw materials.

End life –

Research shows most disposable nappies contain around 70% non-biodegradable materials including plastics and a range of chemicals which I touched on above. Horrifically, in Australia there’s an estimated 800 million disposable nappies ending up in landfill each year. And it is thought that a single disposable nappy is likely to take around 500 years to break down BUT if it has been placed in a plastic bag, it may never break down. So, when considering our environment, they are looking pretty grim.

So, then there’s the option of biodegradable or compostable disposable nappies. I’ll briefly point out the difference between compostable and biodegradable:

  • Biodegradable is anything that breaks down due to the work of naturally occurring microorganisms like algae, fungi and bacteria. Biodegradable materials are generally broken down into small pieces by a process which generally requires exposure to light, the right amount of moisture and certain temperatures.

  • Compostable means that as materials breakdown they release nutrients into the soil which supports growth of plants. It is important to know though that the Health and Safety Regulators of Australia recommend all nappy products be disposed of in the rubbish (and not compost systems) due to the bodily fluids and excrement that could potentially pose health risk if composted. So, even if something claims to be compostable, it’s worth researching how that actually can take place in your community.

A lot of Australia’s landfill sites are covered which means they don’t get light or air, two components that assist in breaking down rubbish. Because of this, nappies may take even longer to breakdown! Regardless of the landfill design or conditions however, items that are biodegradable will always break down faster than plastics.

Due to the reality that the breakdown of nappies is dependent on landfill designs, eco-nappy designers are thus trying to focus their environmental impact on the entire lifecycle of a nappy, with particular focus on production. These companies tend to use renewable resources that have a lower carbon footprint. So, let’s have a look at few disposable but ‘biodegradable’ nappies on offer in Australia to see how they compare to your average disposable nappy and how they compare with each other when focussing on environmental impact…

Ecoriginals – Byron Bay based. Nappies are made of plant-based materials. Each nappy is 80% biodegradable and recommended to be disposed of in biodegradable bags so faecal matter doesn’t spread. CSIRO tested the biodegradability and claim that each nappy should only take 6 months in standard landfill to break down, rather than the usual 500 years of regular nappies. Ecoriginals packaging and wipes are 100% compostable in at home composts. Manufactured in China.

Cuddlies – based in Sydney. Nappies are made from bamboo (requires 1/3 of the amount of water to grow and harvest than cotton and is naturally regenerative, making it very sustainable). Each nappy is 75% biodegradable. Inner packaging is air-tight and not recyclable, outer packaging is cardboard so can be recycled. Manufactured in China.

Eco by Naty – Swedish company but very available in Australia through Woolworths, IGA and online subscriptions. They promise only bio and plant based materials touch baby’s skin and that instead of using oil-based plastics they use bioplastic which comes from renewable biomass sources. Their nappies are 60% biodegradable and according to their website, they hope to have a 100% renewable nappy by 2020 – so keep an eye out! Inner packaging is airtight and made from 60-80% bio-based materials and the outer packaging is recyclable paper.

LuvMe – Australian company. Nappies are made from bamboo (sustainable and renewable resource which is naturally organic). Each nappy is 85% biodegradable with the only plastic in the nappy found in the tabs, the tape the tabs adhere to and the elastic in the leg cuffs. Packaging is biodegradable and recyclable. Manufactured in China.

Tooshies by TOM – where possible conventional plastics have been replaced by bio-based materials made from corn and sugar. Each nappy is 48% biodegradable. Packaging is the type of soft plastic that can be put in a soft plastics recycle collection outside of grocery stores (not your regular recycling bin). Manufactured in Mexico.

So, from those options when comparing biodegradability, Luvme nappies come out in front as they’re 85% biodegradable, shortly followed by Ecoriginals at 80%. In terms of manufacture and resources used in production it is hard to clearly compare. But I hope that if you are in the market for a more environmentally friendly disposable nappy, you’ve got a bit more information to get you started. However, if you are convinced to find the best choice of nappy for the planet, cloth nappies may be the way to go…

Cloth/reusables – unlike disposables, the biggest environmental impact of cloth nappies is during their use; through detergents, water and energy required to rinse, wash and dry them. To reduce the impact of cloth nappies on the environment, dry pail rather than soak before washing, use a front load washing machine as these use less water, wash in full loads, use phosphate free detergents, avoid use of flushable liners, and line dry instead of using a tumble dryer. And of course re-using the same nappies for multiple children will lessen their manufacturing impact.

In terms of manufacture, choosing natural fibres like hemp, bamboo and organic cotton are most environmentally friendly with bamboo and hemp using less pesticides, water and land space. As a bonus, cloth nappies are also a great option for kids with sensitive skin as they contain zero chemicals. Cloth nappies are also bound to save you money if reused a number of times and for multiple children and purchasing one box of reusables will require far less transportation (another carbon cost) than the thousands of reusables that need to be purchased.

So that’s nappies. A lot of information, but also not everything – so please keep researching and learning. As I mentioned at the beginning, I am not 100% cloth in any way, and I struggle to be organised enough to sort out a nappy subscription with the biodegradable options so I am not here to make you feel guilty about how you contain your bub’s poop. I’m just thinking through ways that I can intentionally decrease my carbon footprint as a new mum and you’re welcome to join me in this journey.

Do you have any tips or other ways you’d recommend that I can work on being more environmentally friendly with a bub?

Follow along on Facebook and Instagram @mumwillknow and let me know your thoughts!

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Photo by Baby Beehinds