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Environment and Health Issues

This has to be one of the most amended pages of this website! Undoubtedly environmental and health issues are a minefield: over the past decade or so, various claims have been demonstrated in scientific studies sponsored by various environmental organisations. However, all these studies' claims have been countered by rival studies sponsored by disposable nappy manufacturers. The main issues to bear in mind are these:

Who has paid for this study - and are the results therefore skewed in favour of one side or the other?
Has the issue been settled definitively one way or the other? (the answer to this question is usually 'no'.)

If you come to the conclusion that a study's results are skewed or the issue has not been definitively resolved, then you need to make up your own mind. Of course, the two nappies will have different impacts on different parts of the environment. The Life Cycle Analysis report released in 2007 and updated in 2008 confirms this: with a disposable nappy, the greatest impact will be disposal; then manufacture; and the actual use of the nappy will have very little environmental impact. With cloth nappies, the use stage of the nappy's life will be the area of greatest impact, as the cost of laundry in terms of water, electricity and detergent is almost certainly going to be the highest environmental cost area. However, to try to compare the two types of impacts seems to me to be an apples and pears scenario: trying to equate such radically different areas of impact such that you can draw a 'x is better than y' conclusion seems to me at this stage to be so fraught with unscientific leaps and processes that it can't be possible.

Perhaps the simplest conclusion to draw from this, is that - as with so many other things - the environmental issues around nappies are likely to boil down to a 'simple' consumer choice: if your primary concern is with waste management and landfill, then using cloth nappies will avoid that environmental impact - each baby will have around 4,500 nappy changes so you can choose to use 4,500 disposable nappies, or 20-40 cloth ones (depending on the system you choose). However, you need to bear in mind that using cloth nappies does bring different environmental impacts and there is not a clear black and white/goodies vs. baddies solution. So, everything that follows should be read in the light of this!

If that has confused you, then here is a simple fact which is, in the light of my own experience, indisputable. Despite all the advances in disposable nappy technology, and all the marketing wealth and experience behind them, I have found over the nappy lives of my 4 children that modern cloth nappy systems perform better than even modern disposables. They contain poo better (especially the runny stuff!); leak less; and are more comfortable against the skin (or so my 3 year old tells me).

Environmentally speaking, the main issue is the biodegradability of disposable nappies. As we know, most disposable nappies end up in landfill sites. There is some dispute over how long it takes a nappy to biodegrade, but estimates vary between 200 and 500 years. That means that every disposable nappy ever used is still out there...

I have seen disposable manufacturers claim that dirty nappies are 80% biodegradable. However, it seems likely that a substantial portion of the biodegradable material has been added by the baby, and is not actually part of the nappy! Further gist to the non-biodegradable mill is the use of nappy sacks. We're encouraged to 'bag it and bin it' with disposable products - both sanitary protection and nappies. Yet, sealing something in a plastic bag will prevent it being aerated and it's the presence of aerobic bacteria which facilitates biodegradation. Now, theory would have it that waste placed in landfill sites is raked thoroughly and so all plastic bags will be split before the landfill is compressed and filled, however there is often a wide gap between the theories and ideals, and the actual practice. Landfill ain't rocket science, and it ain't carried out with anything like the precision of rocket science, either.

Recent studies by disposable nappy manufacturers have suggested that, in fact, there is little to choose between cloth nappies and disposable nappies in terms of the negative environmental impacts of each. They say that, by the time you take account of the detergent and electricity used in washing and drying cloth nappies, cloth is just as environmentally unsound as disposable. However, this argument has two major flaws, that I can see:

First, obviously the less you do to your nappies the better in terms of electricity & water used, detergent waste produced, heat released into the atmosphere etc. etc. BUT you are in control of the amount of impact your nappy laundering has - you decide how much - and which - detergent to use, how often to wash, whether to tumble dry or not etc. How much of the disposable nappy manufacturing process, or disposal process come to that, are you in direct control of? On the one hand you can make as much or as little effort as you like to minimise your impact; on the other you have no opportunity to make any effort at all.

Secondly, the studies sponsored by the disposable manufacturers haven't taken into account the impact of manufacture and distribution. They look at it from the moment the nappy goes on the bum, onwards. Now arguably, a similar amount of bleaching/dyeing goes into a white or coloured cloth nappy as a disposable and there is pollution/chemical residue there. There is undoubtedly a deal of implication in cotton growing, which is an aggressive, intensive farming procedure which is only rarely organic. There is the energy used to clean, spin, and weave the cotton. And so on. BUT every cotton nappy that is produced is a multi-use product. So that effort is carried on only once per 250 uses (based on 4,500 nappy changes from birth to potty (1) , where the family owns 18 nappies). Whereas with a disposable all that impact and effort (trees for the paper, oil for the plastic, bleach and dioxins for the whiteness, chemical reactions and procedures for the gel etc, etc) is produced once per single use. Then there's distribution. With a cotton nappy, it has to be transported from factory to distributor, from distributor to shop, from shop to home - each time only once per 250 uses, where each disposable nappy also has to make that journey once per single use. Given that a disposable nappy contains many different materials - many of which are synthetic and have themselves to be manufactured before the nappy can be manufactured - and given that one nappy has to be made every single time one baby has a nappy changed, whereas cotton nappies have one material only, which is natural and needs only conversion rather than manufacture, I fail completely to see how there can be anything like equivalence of environmental impact between the two at this stage. And, of course, if you're re-using your nappies for your second baby, then you're lessening the impact of their manufacture even more...

The UK produces about 2.5 BILLION dirty disposable nappies every year, which local authorities must collect and dispose of. The Real Nappy Association estimates that, for every £1 spent on disposables, 10p must be spent by the taxpayer to dispose of them! The total cost of this for the UK is estimated at about £40 million per year.

It takes one full cup (about 8fl oz) of crude oil to make enough plastic for just one disposable nappy.

It takes 4 1/2 trees to make enough paper pulp to fill the nappies for one baby for 2 1/2 years.

At least 100 viruses can survive in faeces for over 2 weeks, outside the human body. This means that many viruses find their way to landfill sites, where they are scavenged by insects and mammals, and may be passed into circulation in the animal population. They are also subject to leaching by water passing through landfill sites, and may find their way into the water course. Apart from viruses, babies are given several 'live' vaccines, which can survive in faeces. There has been a documented increase in cases of polio amongst urban foxes, which is thought to be due to them scavenging in landfill sites. Now, it seems obvious to me that none of this is happening on a wide scale on a regular basis, otherwise health authorities and waste management groups nationwide would be up in arms. However, the fact that there are  documented cases at all is obviously unsatisfactory and suggests that landfill sites are not managed as well as they ideally could be.

Perhaps even more worrying than the environmental concerns, are the health concerns associated with disposable nappies. Study after study has cast doubts over the safety of disposable nappies. However, there has been a worrying suggestion recently that the facts being distributed to cloth nappy users and campaigners have been less than complete. For the meantime, I am leaving these details on this page until the truth of the situation becomes a little clearer, but please bear in mind what I say above - these studies are usually produced by people with a vested interest in either direction, and they are far from being either conclusive or definitive. Rather than concentrate on these issues, I would prefer you to choose cloth nappies because they perform better than disposables (oh, and look better and feel nicer!)

A study conducted at Kiel University in Germany in 2000 showed that the temperature inside disposable nappies was up to 5 deg. Centigrade higher than in cloth nappies. It was suggested that for boys particularly, this could endanger future fertility as the semen-producing function is developed in the first 2 years of life, and is dependent on the testicular region being kept reasonably cool. I believe this study was conducted using babies in cloth nappies and wool wraps, which are the coolest and most breathable.

A study conducted by Greenpeace in May 2000 found that some brands of disposable nappy contained traces of Tributyl Tin (TBT) an organotin whose primary use is as a marine preservative - it discourages molluscs from attaching to the hulls of boats. However, TBT is also used as a catalyst in the production of some plastics and PVC. TBT has been found to be a 'hormonal pollutant' - that is, it has been found to produce gender change in whelks (it makes them change from male to female). Almost universally, the manufacturers named in the study denied using TBT in their nappies and indeed, 4 weeks later, Greenpeace re-tested the nappies and found that the TBT was no longer present. The disposables manufacturers concerned did undertake an extensive investigation into the contamination, and discovered that there had been an accidental contamination some way up the supply chain. The TBT was found in nappies only in trace amounts, and as a result of this incident I am told that disposables are now regularly sampled for TBT by their manufacturers. It seems to me that Greenpeace is a body whom I would trust, but I also believe that this is rather like incidents when foreign matter is found in jars of baby food - obviously it's alarming and a matter of concern for parents, but it's also alarming and a matter of concern for manufacturers. Accidents do happen but if they result in measures being taken to ensure they won't be repeated then that seems to me to be progress.

The chemical which makes disposable nappies so efficient is called sodium polyacrylate. This is a super-absorbent powder which, when it becomes wet, swells into a gel. You can sometimes see clear crystals of sodium polyacrylate on your baby's bottom when you change a nappy. There are many doubts over the safety of sodium polyacrylate: not least amongst which is its creation of an illusion of dryness which could encourage the nappy (and its contents) to be left in place for longer than advisable, in conditions which are bacterially ideal for the growth of infection. I have heard Health Visitors say, anecdotally, that nappies are changed less and less frequently and this is a matter for concern. No matter what type of nappy you use, you should aim to change it as soon as possible after you know your baby has pooed. It is the interaction of bacteria from faeces and bacteria from urine which produces nappy rash - and this interaction will take place in any and every nappy. Sodium polyacrylate can only absorb moisture - it can't remove bacteria. A dry bottom is not the same as a clean bottom. It also seems to me that the whole issue of dryness is a complete red herring. It strikes me that wet is the natural state for a baby - particularly a newborn. A baby comes from a wet environment - it lives in amniotic fluid up until the point of its birth. Being wet is normal for babies - it's being dry which is bizarre. Disposable nappy adverts imply that dryness is beneficial in preventing nappy rash but, as I say, dry is not the same as clean - a disposable nappy does not remove bacteria - only moisture is locked away. Yet it's bacteria which cause nappy rash, so being dry is irrelevant to nappy rash no matter what the implications of disposables' adverts. Indeed, the study conducted at Bristol University by Dr Jean Goldring concluded that the type of nappy used had no impact on the incidence of nappy rash. The vast majority of cloth nappied babies I know (both my own, my friends' and my customers') don't object at all to being wet, the wetness of a nappy is at body temperature and evaporates away, so I doubt they're even seriously aware of it.

Other health concerns around disposable nappies include the fact that the wood pulp used in them is bleached using dioxins which are highly toxic chemicals known to cause liver damage, immune system suppression and genetic damage in animal studies.

So, that's a brief rundown of the environmental and health concerns around disposable nappies. Obviously, cloth nappies are not completely free from all of these concerns, but I would argue that they are better - which is, after all, as much as we can hope for, in a flawed world :)

Why is cloth better?

In some cases, cloth nappies do contain artificial fibres - polyester or rayon - but for the most part, most cloth nappies are made from pure cotton - a natural fibre.

Although cotton is an intensively farmed crop, for the most part the nappies offered here are made of unbleached cotton - which minimises the environmental impact of the farming. There is also a small (but growing) range of organic cotton nappies. And if you can find hemp nappies, then you've eliminated a large part of the chemical impact of farming since hemp is a weed - and grows like one! - it needs very little fertiliser or weedkiller as it simply smothers anything that grows in its path. It also has fewer insect scavengers than cotton, so requires fewer pesticides.

It is often argued that cloth nappies still use plastic: and although this is true, all plastics used in nappies (velcro, press studs) and wraps ( the polyurethane backing) is used several times - often to destruction! - before it is finally discarded. This is obviously preferable to a one-use throwaway plastic product. Most nappies and many wraps will even be used for more than one child.

Wool is the greenest of all the wrap fabrics, being an entirely natural product with entirely natural waterproofing system!

Although laundry does have an environmental impact, you are in control of how you manage the washing & you can use as little detergent as you choose, and have control over which detergent to use. You could use tea tree oil in your soaking bin, instead of chemical soaking agents. You can wash at 40 degrees if you wish – although 60 is better for killing any germs. You are in control of the environmental impact of your laundry. You have no control over the environmental impact of disposables.


(1) The 4,500 figure is taken from Toddler Taming, by Dr Christopher Green (purely because it's a source without an obvious vested interest).