Water crisis: cloth vs disposable nappies
With the Western Cape facing it's most serious drought in recent years, we take a look at whether switching to disposables is the more water saving option.
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Cape Town is facing its most serious water crisis in recent years, with dam levels sitting at their lowest ever. The City has implemented water restrictions to curb the flow of water, limiting households to 87 litres per person per day, with penalties for over use.

Suggestions for water saving methods are everywhere. We’re all doing what we can to save as much water as possible. 

So as a mother who uses cloth nappies, I am very aware of the amount of water I use to wash them. I decided to do some research to see if perhaps a temporary change to disposable nappies might be a better idea, and save the City some water.

I had a look at the following aspects:

  • The length of the drought
  • The number of disposables I might use
  • The long term impact of disposables on local landfill
  • The amount of water cloth nappies use
  • The impact this will have on water usage

The length of the drought

While no one can predict how long the water shortages will last, the South African Weather Service doesn’t have good news as forecasts don’t indicate adequate incoming rainfall. And “South Africa will take two to three years to recover from the worst drought in a century but the Western Cape will feel the effects for longer than that,” Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane shared in her budget speech in May 2017.

In fact, reports indicate that the Western Cape will become hotter and drier, with high-pressure systems blocking rain-carrying fronts more frequently.

So we’re looking at a minimum of two years of water restrictions, and potentially two years of disposable nappy use.

The number of disposables I might use

Providing my now 6 month old son begins to potty train when he is two and half, he will be in disposables for the rest of his nappy-wearing life.

Thanks to stats from the South African Cloth Nappy Users website I can calculate that my son will generate close to a ton of landfill in the form of disposable nappies by the time he is potty trained.

SACNU uses the following assumptions:

  • A child will use an average of 4.6 disposable nappies per day
  • The average child will use nappies for 30 months
  • The average used disposable nappy weighs 230g

The long term impact of disposables on local landfill

In two and a half years my son will use around 4 140 disposable nappies, generating almost a ton of waste by the time he is potty trained. In contrast, if I stick with cloth nappies he will create only about 2.2kg of landfill waste.

According to the South African Cities Network, “disposal of waste by landfill is the most common means of solid waste disposal in South Africa. In many cities landfill sites are reaching their full capacity and there is limited suitable land for new landfill sites”. In Cape Town, three of the six landfills have already closed; the remaining three are set to close in the next ten years when they will have reached maximum capacity.

The amount of water cloth nappies use

I have a high efficiency washing machine that uses about 60 litres per wash and I wash nappies about 8 times per month, on a short cycle. And maybe once a month on a longer cycle. This comes to about 500 litres per month, less than 16 litres per day.

To offer some context, it is important to know:

  • Manufacture of one month’s worth of disposables for one child uses 6100 litres water.
  • There is a disposable nappy plant right here in drought-stricken Cape Town, in Epping.

The impact this will have on water usage

My household of four is allocated 87 litres per person, that’s 348 litres per day. So the ‘extra load’ of cloth nappies uses only a fraction of that. Take into account also that the baby only baths every second day, and his water consumption is negligible as he has only just started on solids.

So is there a quick and simple answer?

I asked the WWF and Klaudia Schachtschneider, WWF Programme Manager: Water Stewardship, replied most succinctly:
“If your key resource (water in this case) is in short supply, then disposables are more water-use efficient – but environmentally (pollution and waste-wise) more detrimental. So effectively you are robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Cloth mom Marisa shared with us

“I am using cloth full time in CT area and our daily per person water usage is still quite a bit below the suggested usage for level 4B restrictions. So in my opinion using cloth is a viable option even with the restrictions in place, and it is certainly the better option both short and long term when looking at the impact on our water sources and landfills.”

“My family of 3, 2 moms and a toddler in cloth nappies, uses 4kl of water a month” says cloth nappy user Kerry Ann. “We both work from home so 90% of water use is at home. We use bath or rain or pool water in the washing in a front loader, with a watering can. It is so much better to use cloth and the drought has no impact on this if you make an effort. It’s not hard and definitely possible.”

Lauren, mom of a newborn, says she’s found a compromise that works for her.

“To be more environmentally friendly, I have decided to use Bio Baby nappies and cloth nappies. With a small baby going through so many nappies everyday and the drought, using cloth nappies consistently is not an option for me. I can do a few days and one wash of cloth nappies then change to Bio Baby nappies for the next few days. That way, I get the best of both worlds. This means you do have to spend more money though. I was lucky enough to get cloth nappies from a friend so it is not a problem for me.”

My decision

Personally, I’ll keep using cloth nappies, as there are more benefits, to me. I invested in my stash three years ago when my daughter was born, so these nappies are going for round two. That’s a massive financial saving for my family.

I love the way they look, they’re easier on my son’s sensitive skin and I’m also privileged to have a wonderful nanny who helps me to keep on top of the washing.

So for me, it’s cloth all the way (with the occasional disposable as a night nappy!). 

Want to keep using cloth nappies, and still save water?

Here are some tips from SACNU.

1. Use grey water to do the pre-rinse. Catch shower water in buckets or collect bathwater and use the bucket & plunger method

 to rinse the nappies. Some parents pour the water into their top loader to do a nappy rinse in the machine. 

2. Older washing machines and especially top loaders tend to use a lot of water. Newer models and especially front loaders are much more efficient, so consider changing to a newer washing machine. 

3. Connect your nappy sprayer to a grey water system. Spraying one nappy uses approximately the same amount of water as flushing a toilet. 

Visit South African Cloth Nappy Users for more cloth nappy tips and WWF’s Water Stewardship Program for more water saving information. 


If you use cloth nappies, have you switched to disposables to save water? Send us your thoughts to chatback@parent24.com and we could publish it.

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