Which nappy is best?
We take a look at disposables, cloth nappies or going nappy-free.
One thing new parents soon discover is that their promise never to discuss poo in public is broken on the day baby arrives. In the first 6 weeks baby poops between 2 and 5 or more times a day – having a baby means a lot of poo. In general, children only reliably use the toilet around their third birthdays.  

What to do with all that poo?

There are a couple of options – disposable nappies in a variety of price ranges and quality options, cloth nappies and going nappy-free – or as those who do this call it - elimination communication.  

Disposables, bad, bad, bad for the environment, or are they?

Yes, it seems they really are. They use a lot of raw materials to make and they produce more solid waste. However, over the last decade or so there has been a vast reduction in the amount of raw materials used to make them. Once used, they take up space in landfills.  

According to an article in Mother Jones May/June 2008 in 2000 they made up 2% of American municipal waste and in 2006 it was 2.1%. They take a long time to break down (I can’t find any reliable source, just claims of anywhere between 200 and 500 years, so I’m going with “long”). Disposables were first manufactured commercially in 1948, so I suppose it is a while before we’ll know which theory is correct.  

Are cloth nappies any better for the environment?

Sadly, it seems that they aren’t. Cotton crops use a lot of water, pesticides and fertiliser and their manufacture requires more energy and has more atmospheric emissions and requires more water than for the wood pulp used for disposables.  

When it comes to washing them, if bigger loads are washed together on low temperatures in eco-friendly machines, then they do have the edge overall – by about 10%. However, they can become unhygienic if not given hot washes. Drying on a line is obviously environmentally kinder than using a tumble dryer (or at least cheaper in electricity costs).  

What about Eco-nappies?  

I tried one once, my baby pooped right through as if there was no nappy. These are less harmful when it comes to manufacturing, but biodegradable doesn’t mean without harm – when they rot they produce methane which is apparently more of a problem than the carbon dioxide produced by conventional disposable nappies.  

However, the wood they’re made from is touted as being from sustainable forests – but then the wood the commercial brands use might also be from sustainable forests.  

Well, should we just go nappy free then?

Apparently this trend began in the mid 2000s. Personally, I’m not going to sit around training my child to wee and poo on command in the same fashion I used to teach my dog to sit (giving a command and praise when they’re doing it anyway so that they’ll then learn to do it when the command is given – operant conditioning). But if your house is tiled and you’re handy with the mop, then this may just be the way to go.

Nappy rashes

Apparently this is as likely from disposables as from cloth. It is about frequency of changing. Some babies are sensitive to the gels in some brands of disposable nappies, but they aren’t inherently dangerous. Some washing powders used on cloth nappies cause irritation for some babies. If a baby gets thrush then cloth nappies must either be boiled or replaced.  


With the shaped styles and removable absorbent pads, cloth nappies are no longer the back breaking work they used to be. Disposables just require disposing of and no washing and drying. Who knows what nappy free requires in terms of time and cleaning, my guess is a lot of both.

Both cloth and disposable will get smelly if not washed or disposed of straight away, so neither has the edge there. There are buckets to keep cloth ones in and bins with lids for disposables so both have methods of dealing with that.


There is just no argument here. Cloth nappies, with all the water, electricity, washing powder and drying are still cheaper than disposables.  

In the end, it’s probably more about personal choice and how much the trade off between the small amount of extra work vs the small amount of increased environmental harm in the two types of nappies.  

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on Parent24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of Parent24.

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