A bum deal
This mom debates the pros and cons of disposable and cloth nappies.
When my first child was born I had every intention of being the World’s Greenest Mom. I scoured the Yellow Pages and found a nappy service – one of the few remaining ones in Joburg – who delivered a hamper of perfectly folded cloth nappies together with a big black bin (for the soiled ones), which they promised to empty every few days when they brought fresh supplies. The real nappy plan lasted about 3 days after which, frustrated by my own ineptness as a new mom, my baby’s inability to remain perfectly still during changes, and the surprising leakiness of newborn poo, I simply gave up and went back to disposables.  

The average baby goes through around 5000 nappies before he or she is potty trained. That means, in the course of raising my 2 boys (who are now nearly 4 and 7), I’ve contributed around 10 000 nappies to South Africa’s landfills. I’m not particularly proud of this – disposable diapers are made of things like plastic and super-absorbent polymers that don’t biodegrade. But in those heady, scary early days of being a new parent I had bigger things to worry about than my carbon footprint. Like sleep. Or when I’d next get the chance to use the bathroom.

I’d like to say that if I had to do it all over again I’d try harder to be a greener mom. All the research I’ve done over the years indicates that cloth nappies are still the more sustainable option (and one which won’t leave our kids’ kids with dumps full of stinky nappies) and don’t have to be difficult to use. There are some really nifty looking cloth nappies available in South Africa these days, which come ready shaped so you don’t have to work out how to fold or pin them. To be honest, though, I chose disposables for my babies because they were quick, easy to put on and take off, and they worked.

Which is cheaper?

Cloth nappies.

Brand name disposable nappies cost between R2 and R2,50 per diaper (if you buy in bulk). This adds up to over R10 000 per child based on average use.

Eco-friendly disposable nappies cost double what the regular ones do. Which adds up to A Very Lot of Money. And before you say something like “you can’t put a price tag on the environment”, I should point out that most of them are still made with chemicals and plastic – just less than the ordinary disposables.

Regular cloth nappies cost around R70 for four towels (you need between 24 and 36 nappies per child). That’s just R630 for the nappies. Even when you add in the cost of nappy liners, waterproof outers and washing (detergents and electricity), it’s still significantly cheaper than using disposables.

Premium cloth nappies – ones made from sustainable material like bamboo, or “shaped” nappies (so you don’t have to do any folding) are a lot more expensive, up to R200 a nappy, but still work out on saving money: they’ll cost around half what disposable nappies would over the same period.

Good ideas:
  • Not willing to give up disposables entirely? Use cloth nappies at home, disposables when you’re out – you’ll get some of the cost benefit, and cut down on some of your waste.
  • Ditch things like disposable swimming pants (get a re-usable cloth swimming nappy) and training pants (kids take longer to toilet train if they wear too-absorbent pants). You don’t need them (trust me on this), and you’ll save a bundle – because these premium nappies cost R4 or more each!
  • When possible, let your kid run around naked. It’s also good for babies’ bums to get a little air time.

Which is better for the environment?

Cloth nappies. Probably.

Let’s be honest: there’s nothing green about disposable nappies. They use up a terrifying amount of raw materials during the manufacturing process, and leave more solid waste than cloth nappies. They also involve a bunch of potentially unpleasant chemicals that are great for keeping your baby dry or colour indicating when your kid’s made a number one… but aren’t quite so cool for other stuff.

Problem is, having a kid is never going to be a totally carbon neutral exercise. A 2008 study in the UK found that greenhouse gas emissions linked with disposable and cloth diapers were almost exactly the same – because washing reusable diapers at home means relatively heavy use of resources like water and electricity. If you do use cloth diapers you can improve your carbon footprint by doing things like: washing at lower temperatures, drying on a washing line instead of using a tumble dryer, and making sure you use energy efficient appliances.

What do you use? Cloth or disposable nappies?

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