Cloth Versus Disposables Nappies

G Magazine

The debate has raged for years, but which nappies are better for the environment?


Credit: iStockphoto

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If you've just arrived home from the hospital with your little one wrapped up like a bundle of fish and chips, you've a long road ahead of you. Junior is likely to go through around 5,000 nappy changes before he or she is toilet trained. And all that mess has a big environmental impact.


Conventional disposable nappies are made from paper, plastic and an assortment of chemicals, dyes and fragrances.

Harley Wright, environment manager for Kimberly-Clark, maker of Australia's leading disposable brand, Huggies, says the company derives the fibre for its nappies from pine plantations in South Australia.

They use plantation wastes called thinnings. The wood is cooked up in a giant pressure cooker with a corrosive chemical called magnesium bisulphite to extract the cellulose, which becomes the fluffy tissue-like inside of the nappy.

About 43 per cent of a nappy (by weight) is this wood pulp. The outer coatings are fabric-like polymers, derived from fossil fuels which makes up 23 per cent of the weight, and there is a super-absorbant core made from a chemical called sodium polyacrylate, this is about 28 per cent of the nappy.

Huggies makes a point on its website of noting that it uses hydrogen peroxide rather than chlorine to bleach nappy fluff. The process, it assures parents, produces oxygen and leaves negligible residue in the environment.

Modern cloth nappies can be made of all kinds of fabrics, such as cotton, hemp, bamboo fleece and polyester.

The traditional nappy, however, is a square of brushed cotton. Cotton is a water-intensive crop that requires considerable amounts of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides to grow.


Most families will work their way through about 5,000 disposable nappies. Meanwhile, cloth nappy users will get through about 50.

However those 50, of course, need to be washed. Mostly, wet nappies go in for a soak, while pooey nappies get scraped off into the toilet before going for a soak. Then they all get bundled into the washing machine.

Over two and a half years, that means about 88 extra loads of washing. That's around 48 extra kilowatt hours of electricity and 6,250 extra litres of water - and that's if you've got one of the most efficient brands of washing machine.

On top of this there is the water used for soaking and flushing - that could be over 23,342 litres.

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