Lauren Bravo, sustainability champion, looks at the financial and environmental impact of switching from disposable to reusable nappies
Eco-conscious parenting can sometimes feel like a contradiction in terms. Despite all our best efforts to minimise our own consumption, it can be hard to get around the fact that babies need a lot of things – many of which only serve their purpose for a short time, while costs quickly mount up.
Case in point: nappies
It’s an unavoidable fact that your bundle of joy comes with many other bundles of… well the less said about that the better. Disposable nappies might be more convenient for time-stretched parents, but they’re made largely from plastics like polyethylene and polypropylene, with their complex synthetic structure meaning they can take up to 500 years to break down in the earth. Even so-called ‘eco’ nappies often feature plastic components, and struggle to biodegrade properly in landfill conditions.
Meanwhile, reusable cloth nappies are often touted as the saintly alternative – and a money-saver too. But do the sums add up?
Understanding the environmental impact
Recycling charity Wrap estimates that three billion disposable nappies are thrown away every year in the UK, accounting for 2-3% of all household waste in the country. By the time they’re potty-trained, an average child could have used between 4,000 to 6,000 disposable nappies. Compared to just 20 to 30 reusable nappies, it’s a colossal output.
But it’s not quite as simple as saying that disposable = bad, reusable = good. Because while reusables take the burden off landfill and have a much lower impact at the production stage, they do need frequent washing and drying, which has a significant carbon footprint of its own. Back in 2008, the Environment Agency estimated that over the two and a half years a typical child would wear nappies, reusables would generate 570kg of carbon emissions through laundry. Disposables actually clocked in slightly lower, at 550kg of carbon emissions.
However, there are measures parents can take to reduce that figure, such as washing in fuller loads, reducing washing temperature and drying nappies on a washing line rather than using a tumble-dryer. Taking all three of these steps could lower the global warming impact by up to 40%. Dedicated nappy laundry services are even available in some areas, which save energy – in both senses of the word – by washing and drying the diapers in big batches and delivering them back to you each week.
And what about your finances?
Financially, things are more cut and dry. Disposables for newborns range from roughly 4p per nappy for budget supermarket brands, to 16p and up for more premium offerings. Reusable nappies have a much higher initial outlay, with trial packs generally costing between £30 and £50 while a full starter kit including liners, waterproof wraps and a nappy pail will cost upwards of £100, even £200 depending on style and brand.
But once you have the kit, that’s more or less it. The government’s Money Advice Service estimates that the average cost of reusables over two and a half years is £400 – including all the extra laundry. Compare that to two and a half years of own-brand disposable nappies at £1,875, and it’s clear where the savings lie.
Not to mention the fact that reusable nappies can be bought secondhand, or even found for free on sites like Freecycle and local Facebook pages. Some local authorities in the UK even offer a ‘real nappy’ voucher worth up to £54.15 or a free sample kit to get you started.
And of course, things work out much cheaper if reusable nappies are kept and used again for another baby. Even if that’s the last thing on your mind just now.