Thursday, 2 February 2012

A perfect fit

There are few certainties in life for new parents, but one is that you’ll become terribly familiar with what comes out of your baby, at both ends. So one of the (seemingly endless) decisions you’ll need to make is whether to use disposable or reusable nappies.

So many new mothers I've met, never mind friends and family, still imagine that real nappies equate to terry squares, fiddly pins and smelly buckets. Fortunately, reusable nappies have evolved quite significantly in the last decade and now you can choose from a range of nappy types depending on whether you want a birth-to-potty system, have a baby with slim hips, a heavy wetter or just need something that is quick drying. Yes, reusables need washing, but as every parent knows, the washing machine seems to be on permanently for the first year anyway, and modern nappies can be washed quite safely at 60 degrees, provided you use a suitable laundry powder or additive (and these can be green as well, by the way).

There's been a lot of confusion and controversy over how virtuous reusables really are in the last few years, primarily relating to how costly they are to wash and dry. The worst offender in this respect was an Environment Agency report in 2005, which has since been updated. The 2008 version of the report takes into account the use of shaped reusable nappies, the increased energy efficiency of washing machines and driers, and changes to waste disposal options. It concludes that your energy consumption will indeed go through the roof if you wash at 90 and use a tumble dryer – in fact you’d do less environmental damage overall by just using disposables, but that otherwise using reusables in a consciously green fashion (washing at 60, line/air-drying, and using on more than one child) can make them up to 40% ‘greener’ than disposables. 

But, for me, the energy consumption argument somewhat misses the point anyway: one of the biggest problems with disposable nappies is that they go into landfill after one use. On average, children in disposable nappies will create 146.5kg of waste each, which is sent to landfill or for incineration – this is a considerable improvement on the part of manufacturers since 2001-02 when disposable nappies were generally heavier and thus resulted in 166.3kg of waste during the nappy-wearing period.[1]

Reusable nappies, on the other hand, will see you through all your children and can then be passed on to friends or family for their little ones. If you’re that way inclined there’s even a brisk trade on ebay if you want to make some of your cash back and reduce your environmental impact even further. You don’t even need to buy a brand new set, unless you want to. We were offered the loan of a set of medium-sized nappies. We therefore purchased about 10 small-sized nappies to trial on our newborn and quickly settled into quite a comfortable compromise, using the reusable nappies during the day and some eco disposables (Nature Baby) overnight when the nappy isn’t changed quite as frequently. We moved on to the medium-sized nappies at about 3 months and then bought a final set of nappies to see us through to potty training. The latter set we got on ebay for about half the price we’d have paid for new! 

So if you don’t have the space to line- or air-dry your reusables, or you can’t contemplate washing them at less than 90, then this nappy solution might not be the best one for you. If, however, you already practice ‘green’ laundry principles - washing at low temperatures, ensuring a full load, using an A* rated machine and line- or air-drying clothes – then do give reusable nappies a shot.

[1] Figures are taken from the report An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies commissioned by the Environment Agency in 2008.

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