One of the most controversial aspects of green parenting is what to do when your eco-baba does a poo. Yip, I’m talking about nappies.
It’s estimated that your child will go through as many as 10,000 nappies before being potty trained. Of course, the number varies drastically depending on who’s being quoted and what their agenda is, but let’s do some simple maths:
8-12 (let’s call it ten) changes a day for the first year: 3650
About six changes a day for the next two years: 4380
Note that this doesn’t even account for those nappies changed in vain when you thought they were soiled but weren’t really (doh!), nappies changed againfifteen minutes later when they really were soiled, “night” nappies commonly used by otherwise potty-trained tots for an extra year or more, or parents who change nappies more frequently, for whatever reason.
That’s still about 8030 wet and dirty nappies you’ll have to deal with. At least. Probably more.
Let’s be frank. Nappies are gross. No matter what brand, style, colour or form, they are no fun.
Another frank point: they are not good for the environment. Again, no matter what make and no matter if you are using disposable or reusable nappies, the environment is going to take a knock in the few years your child’s not toilet trained.
So how on earth do you decide which type to go with? There are several factors to consider:
The Ick Factor
This is probably the single biggest factor – and the most emotive one – in deciding what kind of nappy to use, especially for first-time parents. The thought of handling poo is certainly off-putting. I know many parents who have done several things to live greener lifestyles, but have drawn the line at cloth nappies.
Well, since you’re part of the parent club now (or are about to be), I’ll let you in on a little secret: there’s no real way around the gross aspect of changing soiled nappies. Sorry. Unless you hire both day and night nannies, you are going to have to deal with poo. And, yes, probably touch it too. I hate to be the one to have to break it to you, but you will probably encounter poo in ways you had never thought possible, in areas you thought an adult would never find it. But here’s the “comforting” part (verts used liberally): you will survive. You will probably even become immune to it.
It doesn’t matter what kind of nappy you use. The worst part is opening the nappy and cleaning the baby. After that, one of two things happen. (A) a disposable nappy is put in the rubbish bin and sent to the dump, or (B) a reusable nappy is put in the laundry bin and sent to the laundry. No big difference to the nappy changer, but ultimately a huge difference to impact on landfills.
If you do your own laundry (as I do), fear not. As I said, the worst part is well behind you. Now you need only take one deep breath and bung the lot in the wash, to be greeted a short while later by fresh, clean nappies which you can hang on the line with pride. Here’s the trick: today you can buy biodegradable nappy liners so the worst of a Number 2 is lifted and flushed/disposed, leaving you with pretty much a wet nappy, which is far less gross to deal with.
Newborn Ariel in his cloth nappy
The Landfill Factor
Imagine 8030 nappies. That’s a huge amount of space, even in a landfill of kilometres and kilometres.
From a waste quantity point of view, it’s hard to argue against cloth nappies. Authors of The Green Book Elizabeth Rogers and Thomas M Kostigen reckon that if you go the cloth route, “Over the course of 8000 diaper changes, your baby will generate 3000 fewer pounds of landfill waste. If cloth diapers were used by just an additional 1% of parents, the reduction in waste would be as if 14,200 households completely stopped producing garbage for an entire year.”
And the stinking mountain of dirty nappies (sorry, I promised I’d try not to get emotive, but it’s a difficult image to shift) ain’t going anywhere. The Real Diaper Association hazards: “no-one knows how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose, but it is estimated to be about 250-500 years, long after your children, grandchildren and great, great, great grandchildren will be gone”. Eish.
In the interest of unbiased research and reporting, I looked for shorter decomposition rates and found estimates as low as 75 years (interestingly, the same article also offers 450 years), but the consensus seems to be that these stinky things will hang around a looooong time, clogging land that could be much better utilized for other things.
The Water factor
People who are against the notion of cloth nappies often argue that they use so much water for washing that they’re no better for the environment than disposables. Not necessarily so.
People often neglect to calculate the huge amount of water that goes into the manufacturing process of disposable nappies, from growing the trees to felling, transporting and processing them (and then packaging and further transporting them). Then of course there is the fossil fuel involved in this process as well.
As for cloth nappies, there are also several considerations to bear in mind, for example the impact that the growth and processing of the raw material will have on the environment. Conventionally grown cotton is one of the world’s most non-eco-friendly crops. Because of the depletion of organic matter in the soil, it requires vast amounts of water, as well as 25% of the world’s pesticides and 10% of the world’s synthetic fertilizers which also pollute surrounding water sources. (For more eye-opening information on the hazards of conventional cotton, read this interesting article on Faithful to Nature’s Organic Blog.)
Nappies made from organic cotton, bamboo or hemp would be more water-wise and generally eco-friendly options.
While disposable nappies end up in landfills (sometimes contaminating local water sources) washing cloth nappies uses water, energy and detergent. Again, there are several factors to consider, such as:
- whether or not you use a biodegradable detergent (and whether you use bleach or fabric softener, neither of which are strictly necessary)
- whether you have a top- or front-loading machine (the latter uses far less water and electricity)
- whether you run the machine with less than a full load (bad idea from an efficiency point of view).
- the drying process is also an important factor in calculating energy usage – do you use a machine or do you have access to a washing line and sunny weather (both commonly available in South Africa)?
- For more useful tips from “Mr Electricity” Michael Bluejay on how to make your laundry more efficient and save money, water and energy in the process, click here.
Also bear in mind that even if your baby used no nappies at all, s/he would still utilize water for flushing the toilet when they “go”. So, unfortunately, water usage is a given for every human being, whether they’re wearing cloth nappies or not.
Ari at two weeks
The Cost Factor
I knew someone who developed the annoying habit of yelling out “R2,75!” every time his wife changed a nappy. Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that his wife was the one changing all the nappies; if we examine the economics of the situation, he’s right: using disposable nappies means you’ll be spending a few rand every time you change one – and that can be up to ten or twelve times a day at the beginning!
Of course the numbers are extremely variable since there are so many brands of both disposable and reusable nappies.
Personally, we figure we’ve spent about R19,000.00 over the last three years on nappies, waterproof outers, biodegradable liners, and the odd bag of disposable nappies too (for a full breakdown, see My Story below). It’s probably worth noting that we picked a rather expensive brand, so you could end up paying much less. In fact, if you buy used cloth nappies off a friend, consumer website or second-hand baby store, you could pay next to nothing. You could also sew your own nappies (websites like Cloth Diaper Sewing generously offer free patterns).
Still, think R19,000.00 sounds like a lot? Let’s revisit the disposable option: at our conservative estimation of 8030 nappies at around R2.75 each, we would have paid R22,082.50 for disposables for the first child, never mind the second. For us, that represents a saving of several thousand rand the first time round, and more than triple that on subsequent children/hand-me-downs to cousins, friends, charities etc.
I’d like to tell you that we calculated the difference at the time and donated it to a green charity or put it away in a high interest-bearing account for the boys’ education. Looking at it now, we probably should have. But in any case it’s a huge saving and we’ve benefitted from not being bound by a tighter budget!
Another way to reduce the overall cost of nappies is to sell off your cloth ones when your child’s done with them. You could make back a tidy percentage of what you paid – something that can never be said for disposables.
Playtime – Ari at about three months
The Convenience Factor
1. Convenience of use
Some people are put off cloth nappies by the thought of having to fold and pin them. Great news! We are now in the 21st Century and cloth nappies have come so far in design that they are often just as simple to use as disposable ones, even for new parents with ten thumbs.
You can still buy the terry squares that kept so many generations of bums dry, but I would recommend looking into the vast range of modern nappies that are crafted with ease-of-assembly in mind. Some brands offer all-in-one products that resemble a conventional disposable nappy, while others sell the inner nappy separately to a waterproof cover with Velcro or press-studs (that operates much like a disposable). Personally, I found that the separates dry quicker after washing.
So in terms of hassle I’d say that modern reusable nappies are on a par with disposables.
When it comes to laundering, there are several factors to consider:
- Who will be doing the laundry? If you have domestic help or outsource your laundry, this point bears little consideration since it will not really inconvenience you anyway.
- Is there a nappy service in your area? You might even find a professional service that regularly collects your dirty nappies and brings you clean ones, all soft and sweet and smelling of roses. That’s more convenient than having to go to the shops to buy disposables!
- Weigh up the chores. I do the laundry in our household, so dirty nappies are my domain. But honestly? There’s a two-minute period of loading them into the machine, and most of the “inconvenience” is in hanging them up to dry, folding them, and redistributing them to the boys’ rooms/nappy bags. It’s clean, calm work. When I weigh this up against the chores of taking out the trash, feeding stubborn children supper, cleaning the kitchen, and all of the other things Veggietot Dad does while I am “slaving away” in the laundry with the nappies, it really doesn’t seem like such an inconvenience at all! (PS please don’t tell Veggietot Dad this!)
The Health factor
Disposable or reusable, you need to change your baby’s nappy frequently to prevent nappy rash caused by sitting in wet/dirty nappies.
But in addition to making a cushy home for tushy germs, most disposable nappies contain added chemicals to schloop up and hold in the fluids. I’m not crazy about keeping chemicals constantly against my baby’s sensitive skin, especially “down there”.
None of the brands of disposables I squizzed at during the course of researching this article listed the “ingredients” used in their nappies (hopefully this will change with time and the new Consumer Protection Act). But right now, it’s difficult for parents to make an informed decision with regard to the contents of disposable nappies. From a bit of web research, it seems the primary chemicals found in disposable nappies are:
- sodium polyacrylate for absorbency (according to one study, that’s the same chemical that’s been linked to toxic shock syndrome in tampons)
- dioxin and other by-products of the chlorine used in the paper bleaching process, which have been shown to be potentially carcinogenic (cancer-causing).
- tributyl-tin (TBT), an antibacterial chemical that is extremely toxic and can have hormone-like effects in those who come into contact with it.
For more on these chemicals and their use in disposable nappies read this interesting article. Other articles link chemicals in disposable nappies to male infertility, hormonal imbalances, and asthma.
I’ve chosen not to highlight or link to articles showing the damage these chemicals can cause individual infants. That would be fear-mongering (not a Veggietot value), and I feel it’s my duty to remind readers that these are certainly the exception, rather than the norm.
I’m the first to point out that I (like many of you reading this) am among the hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of babies reared in disposable nappies, to no personal ill effect. But still, though the risks be small, they are real, and if there’s a ready alternative, I’m more comfortable going with it, at least most of the time.
Right: Yishai (six months) gets some lovin’ from Veggietot Dad. He’s in the same nappies his brother wore a year and a half earlier.
The Potty-Training Factor
There’s a theory that cloth-nappy wearers toilet train at an earlier age, because they can feel the immediate results of their nether movements, so they can make the connection quicker between weeing and wet. While this may be great for you as a parent, it’s also good news for the environment, as it can knock many months – and therefore many kilos of carbon – off your child’s carbon footprint.
Of course, each child is different and my just-about-three-year-old is still very happy in his cloth nappies. Yeah. Potty training. That’s going to be a fun one…
The Sharing is Caring factor
Disposable nappies are used just once and then sent to landfills. Cloth nappies are used again and again, and often for more than one child, so the initial cost (both financial and environmental) becomes proportionately much lower. If you plan on having more than one child, you will save a bucket.
And if you have just one little angel, you can still pass on the nappies to friends with babies or donate them to children’s homes where they will continue to keep bums clean and dry at almost no cost.
The Deciding Factor?
You don’t have to turn into a nappy fundamentalist. There’s an unfair belief that if you choose to use cloth nappies, you must be a mad, frothing hippy and that if the same person ever, ever, EVER choose to use a disposable nappy you instantly become a mad, frothing hypocrite.
Some parents use cloth nappies around the home and the odd disposable when they go out for the day. Parents who travel a lot with their baby may choose to switch to disposables while on the road, relying on cloth when they’re back at the ranch. Some use disposables only at night. And, of course, there are the inevitable days when Supermum doesn’t get the laundry done on time, or the weather doesn’t comply and the nappies aren’t quite dry enough when it comes to packing the nappy bag. So, yes, even if you choose the reusable route, disposable nappies may have their place as well.
And disposables themselves need not be the devil incarnate. There are options of organic and/or biodegradable disposable nappies, but in South Africa these tend to be imported (i.e. carbon-heavy) and expensive.
Even if you use cloth nappies some of the time, you will still reduce your total waste.
Like everything else in raising your children, the choice is yours. Just make it an informed one.
If you do choose to go with cloth nappies, Doodle-Bums is a great website that offers several brands of reusable nappies, as well as some eco-disposable options. They also offer a neat nappy comparison sheet to help you review and compare the specs of the various brands.
Faithful to Nature also sells eco-friendly nappy brands in South Africa.
Please feel free to leave a comment with details of other suppliers who you feel should be featured.
Our experience with Bambino Mio
For those of you who are still reading (thanks!), here is how the decision to “get real” with nappies played out in my own personal experience:
Yishai and Ariel are still very
happy in their Bambino Mios
Picking a brand
I was about seven months pregnant and working through a lever-arch To Do list before Due Day. We’d decided that we were going to try the cloth nappy route, mainly for environmental reasons but also because we didn’t like the idea of too many chemicals on our Veggietot’s little bum. I’d allocated a particular Sunday morning for buying nappies and was on a mission.
We walked into one of SA’s largest baby supply stores and amongst the large array of disposable nappies (they must have taken up at least a tenth of the store!), they only offered one brand of reusables: Bambino Mio, a range imported from Italy. From a patriotic and ecological point of view, I’d have liked to have supported a local brand, but I was dangerously hormonal, pressed for time, and the Bambino Mios had won numerous international awards so we bought the starter pack and went home to slough through the To Do list.
The first cloth nappy change
I got to rehearse putting the Bambino Mios on a teddy bear at my baby shower (thanks guys…) but nothing can really prepare you for putting any nappy on an actual, wriggling baby, especially when there’s runny, newborn poo in the equation. I admit to being cold-stone terrified.
Our Veggietot was born in hospital, and immediately put into the standard-issue disposables, which he wore for two days until we were discharged. After a day or two at home, we took a deep breath put him into the cloth nappies. They worked perfectly. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, and we’ve never looked back.
How do they work?
Bambino Mio nappies comprise rectangular cotton nappy “inners”, which are folded and put inside waterproof nappy “outers” with velcro tabs. Since the outers are far more expensive than the inners, it’s great when your kid does a little wee and you can just change the nappy inner without having to stick the outer in the wash and take another clean one. Bambino Mio also sells biodegradable, flushable nappy liners, which contain the worst of a number two so you don’t have to scrape it off or shove lumps of poo into the laundry. GENIUS, I tell ya!
How many to buy?
We bought a “birth to potty” pack, but over time we found it suited us to supplement it with a few extra inners and outers, mainly to take the pressure off me having to do laundry every two days and also to prevent me running only partly-full laundry loads, which is environmentally unfriendly and inefficient. I now do a nappy load on average every three to four days.
I reckon we’ve spent the following over the past three years:
- 24 small nappies @R50 = R1200
- 24 large nappies @R50 = R1200
- 7 waterproof outers @R175 = R1225 x 5 sizes = R6125
- Biodegradable liners approx 1 pack/month @R200 = R2400 x 3 years = R7200
- Disposable nappies @2.75 approx 1/day for 2.5 years = R2500
- There are also the costs of water, electricity and laundry detergents to bear in mind. Of course these costs vary depending on your area, machine, method, etc. I couldn’t find a decent South African calculator, but using the standard costs on an American calculator and multiplying the end result by eight gave me the result of R4.48/load per load of nappies, or R400.00/year. So call it R1200.00 over three years.
I admit we’ve been rather flush with our choice of nappy brand, quantities and other incidentals like liners/disposables, but the total spent still comes in cheaper than three years’ worth of disposables (see The Cost Factor, above), and since we have not had to lay out on the nappies and outers for our second child, we calculate we’ll save a further R12,000.00 or so.
Double trouble: two babies in nappies
Because our boys are only 19 months apart, they’re both in nappies at the same time, further increasing our need to buy extra waterproof outers in the larger sizes. What’s been great, though, is that we’ve found we can double-up the small Bambino Mio nappy inners to make large ones that still fit snuggly in the outers, saving us from having to double up on those in the large sizes. We’ve also picked up a couple of extra outers along the way from mates, of varying brands, which work pretty well with the Bambino Mio nappy inners.
Even Grampa can handle them
We (and our helpful family members and baby sitters) have found the Bambino Mio nappies easy to use and very effective. Our boys almost never had nappy rashes.
With their genius biodegradable, flushable nappy liners (which lift off the worst of a number two straight into the toilet), they’re really easy and neat. The soiled nappies and/or nappy covers are stored in a large, lidded plastic pail until laundry day. No chemicals, solutions, fluids, etc need to be added to the bucket. There is no smell when the lid is closed. We keep the bin on a shelf, out of toddler’s tipping-range.
Ariel’s playschool has been extremely accommodating. I printed out a “how-to change a reusable nappy” cheat sheet to hang above the school’s compactum, and they simply put his used nappies into his school bag instead of the bin (wrapped in a nappy sack, which we reuse to line small rubbish bins around the house or donate to friends with puppies for scooping poop).
I feel I should note – rather pointedly – that despite even my father being able to operate these easy-to-use nappies, he does not change nearly as many nappies as he should.
Shock! Horror! Veggietot Mom uses disposables!
I know, I know, you expected someone like me to spit on disposable nappies and anyone who uses them. Sorry to disappoint, but Veggietots is all about achieving balance in life, and offsetting our bad habits (which we all have) wherever we can. Here’s one of mine:
Once Ariel started sleeping through the night (around 3.5 months, yes I know we were lucky, please don’t hate us), we found disposables more effective in keeping him dry for longer (those darn chemicals again). So we resorted to one disposable nappy a night, using cloth the rest of the time.
When Yishai was born a year and a half later, he went straight into Ariel’s old newborn sized cloth nappies when we came home from the hospital. Again, we used them exclusively until he started sleeping through the night (around 5.5 months), since if he was waking to feed anyway it was no big deal to change him at the same time. Then he also went into one disposable a night to stretch us parents through til morning in peace and quiet.
Would I do it again?
Being the mad, frothing hippie that I am, I had been prepared to sacrifice convenience on the altar of environmentalism, but it’s not been like that at all. A pooey nappy is pretty disgusting any way you look at it, but I honestly don’t find cloth ones any more gross than disposables, and the satisfaction that I’m keeping thousands of stinky nappies out of landfills, whilst protecting my tots’ bums and saving money, is great.
Looking back, I’d have liked to experiment with local brands and organic or non-cotton alternatives, but anyhow. That’s my story.
I’d love to hear from you how you made your nappy decisions, what brand you went with, and how it worked for you!
(If your story is too long to fit in the comment box, feel free to send me a personal message (see CONTACT tab) I’ll gladly post it on the main blog.)