One of the first things I encountered when I first became concerned about landfill was an infographic that showed how long various items take to breakdown in landfill. Disposable nappies were listed at 500 years, so obviously, before even becoming pregnant I had already decided to use cloth nappies.
While pregnant, I ordered various ‘trial’ packs from a range of Australian cloth nappy companies, as well as a pack of disposable nappies (as environmentally sound as I could find but unfortunately there are no truly biodegradable disposable nappies available in mainland Australia) so that I could try out a few different types and make a choice shortly after our baby was born. If you decide to do cloth nappies, I definitely recommend you try a few types before you buy a whole set (though this poses problems if you want to avoid disposables altogether).
There are heaps of guides to the various types of cloth nappy online so I won’t repeat information you can easily find yourself. What I will do, however, is give you a breakdown of how this has worked for me as a first-time mum.
Firstly, it is really lucky that I bought some trial packs and didn’t just go blind and choose what looked the best online. Not only because the one I was least convinced by online ended up being the one I bought 22 more of, but also because two of the nappies I bought were too small to fit my son even from birth. (Yes, he was quite big, apparently, but not ridiculous!)
In the hazy first week after birth, I allowed myself to be convinced to use mainly disposables to make it easier for myself and for my husband… I was shocked – after 3+ years of only one tiny bag of landfill going out in an average week, we had suddenly added a (small) bag of nappies a day to that. Disgusting. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we ran out so much quicker than I thought we would, so we had to start using the trial cloth nappies I had bought after 3 days.
Please remember at this point that disposable nappies take about 500 years to break down.
Now for the honest assessment of how much extra hassle using cloth nappies is.
Yep. In comparison with disposable nappies, it is a fair bit more work. I pre-wash the really soiled nappies and cloth wipes by hand with a probiotic soap that I bought to clean my cloth pads with, which takes about 15 minutes, depending on how many there are, then I wash them in the machine according to the instructions from the manufacturer, which in my case are to do a hot pre-wash without detergent (on my machine I do 20 mins at 40 degrees), followed by a main cold wash with detergent (to which I add any other laundry).
It takes me about 10 minutes to hang out the washing. So this probably adds about 30 minutes of active work to my day, in total (not including the wait time for the machine’s cycles, obviously).
Half an hour per day, to me, is a small price to pay for the knowledge that I am not contributing hundreds of nappies a year to landfill.
And if you are thinking something like, ‘But… Eww! It must be disgusting washing those pooey nappies,’ then my response is yes. And no. To me, it’s no more disgusting than letting pooey nappies sit in a bin and start stinking.
Finally, having just come away from a fortnight using exclusively disposables (I hated doing it, but the rotavirus vaccine can shed live virus into the poo so I made a choice that weighed up a whole bunch of factors including how difficult I perceived it to be to sterilise the nappy covers appropriately when they are supposed to be washed in cold water), I can say another big difference is the number of changes needed. Honestly, I wish I didn’t care so much about the waste, because the type of nappy I chose (towelling) stays wet against the skin so I go through more cloth nappies in a day than I did disposables.
There is of course another factor that deserves discussion: cost.
Most cloth nappy manufacturers will tell you that using cloth nappies will save you hundreds of dollars a year.
I did the maths, and this is not strictly accurate. Of course, it depends on the brand of disposables you are using as your comparison, as well as the type of cloth nappy, how many you buy, and how long your baby fits into them.
If you go for the one size fits most nappies and just deal with a couple of months of a really big nappy on a really small baby, then cloth nappies will work out way cheaper than disposables.
However, if, like me, you preferred a newborn size nappy, then you will need to fork out for 2 sets of nappies. I compared the cost of a supposed ‘eco’ disposable brand with a full set (24) of newborn sized cloth nappies, which apparently last until 4 months odd (8kg). If getting 3-4 months out of those nappies, they work out about the same or a little cheaper than ‘eco’ disposables.
If cost is a factor that contributes to your decision between cloth and disposable nappies, do the maths yourself by comparing which brand of disposables you would buy against the cloth nappies you would use.
I would also like to point out that the commercial nappies (Huggies etc) are filled with things that I don’t particularly want on my baby’s skin… but, again, there is heaps of information online that you can read.
Check out what Hello Charlie has to say on disposable nappies for a starting point if you want to do your own research.
At this point, here are my two cents on the type of cloth nappy you might want to consider buying, having now myself bought the nappies that will see us through to toilet training. If I were doing it again, I would skip the newborn-sized nappies, because depending on how quickly your child grows, you may only get a couple of months’ wear out of them, and spending $300-odd on nappies for 2 months works out considerably more expensive than disposables. Unfortunately, at 9 weeks, my son is already pushing the size that I consider a good fit on those nappies, and a newborn sized all-in-one would have stopped fitting him weeks ago.
I honestly don’t think it’s worth getting a ‘newborn’ size nappy (unless you have a premmie perhaps), because they will grow to fit the ‘one size fits most’ nappies perfectly within a month or so and they are quite adjustable to work (albeit a little awkwardly) from birth for most babies.
Personally, having now tried ‘fitted’, ‘all in one/all in two’ and ‘pocket’ style cloth nappies, I prefer the pocket. The absorbent pad sits inside a pocket in the nappy cover and the fleece inside the nappy cover sits against the baby’s skin. When wet, the moisture wicks through into the absorbent layer much like a disposable, leaving far less moisture on the baby’s skin than a ‘fitted’ style. The ‘all in one/all in two’ styles are somewhat in between in terms of dryness, but they take so long to dry that they would be a considerable hassle during the winter months.
Having researched the cost of multiple nappy options, and with my preference for the pocket style nappy, I decided to get a full set of Hippybottomus nappies and I love them!
Now, I have to admit, I’m not getting away with completely waste-free nappy changes. Yet.
We have opted to use the biodegradable disposable bamboo liners to catch most of the solid poo (let’s be honest, you’ll never catch it all even if you duct tape your baby from the waist down). While in theory this could then be composted, you are not allowed to put human excrement in your local council’s green bin, which means you would have to compost it yourself.
While there are safe ways to do this to ensure the poo won’t transmit any viruses or parasites to you or your family, it is not a particularly easy or cheap task. I have compromised on the ‘zero-waste’ nappy change and ended up with a ‘minimal-waste’ nappy change. I use a homemade newspaper bin liner because the contents are entirely biodegradable and send this to landfill. If I didn’t have a dog, I would probably feel comfortable burying my newspaper and poopy liners in the back of the garden.
If you want a truly zero-waste nappy change, the only feasible way to do it (in my opinion) is to use entirely washable nappies, wipes and liners.
Now, onto the wipes. Using cloth wipes is easy, as you just wash them with the nappies. They can be quite expensive to buy but if you have even basic sewing skills and a sewing machine you can make your own really easily.
Hemmed handkerchief-sized squares of flannelette work exceptionally well and dry fast. My wonderfully crafty mum made me some wipes that have muslin on one side and flannelette on the other, and these don’t seem to become quite as stiff when they dry. However, as you need to wet the wipes anyway, the stiffness is a non-issue.
What to use to wet them with? Plain water. When he has a particularly pooey nappy, I use a homemade wipe solution containing water, apple cider vinegar, castile soap and chamomile and lavender essential oils and then wipe over the area again with water so the solution doesn’t stay on his skin.
I have a squeezy tomato sauce bottle full of water on the nappy change table to make it easy for myself, and two bins next to the change-table. One lined with newspaper for my nappy liners, and one for the cloth nappies and wipes. These cloth wipes wet just with water do not irritate my son’s skin like the commercial wet wipes do. (I can’t wait until my Aloe Vera plant is big enough to start picking the leaves to wipe on his skin instead of nappy rash cream, but in the meantime Gaia brand is my favourite so far).
Overall, while it may seem like significantly more work to use cloth nappies and wipes, I found I got into the swing of it very quickly. The one major difference this makes is that washing the nappies and hanging them out is a non-negotiable task that I must get done every morning – I have to do this first thing when I get up after my son’s first morning feed. If he’s unhappy, I put him in my baby carrier and bop around and sing to him while I wash the nappies. He can have my full attention as soon as I press the start button on the machine!
So, the take away from this post is that I wholeheartedly recommend cloth nappies and wipes. It needn’t be any more expensive than using disposables, adds maybe a half-hour to your day, and clearly makes a HUGE difference to your contribution to landfill.
One more thing: If you think you’ll use cloth nappies and not disposables, and if you’re happy to plunge into a full set of a particular type based on your research or someone’s recommendation, I recommend trying to use them straight away and avoid using disposables even for the first week, if possible. I really don’t think it makes that much difference and it’s probably better not to get used to the speed of a nappy change with disposables if you’re going cloth later.
This is, in my opinion, a fairly small step towards living more sustainably, but drastically reduces your potential landfill waste.