13 January 2009

Choose Your Impact: The Great Nappy Debate

:5305 drying nappiesImage by imcountingufoz via FlickrI recently read an interesting blog post "The Scoop on Poop" that brought to my attention an independent study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in the UK comparing the environmental impact of reusable, cloth nappies to that of disposable nappies. Actually, it drew my attention to an article in the TimesOnline that referred to the study as the study itself proved elusive.

It was interesting to note that according to the TimesOnline the researchers drew the conclusion that reusable nappies have a much higher carbon footprint than disposable nappies unless "parents adopt an extreme approach to laundering them."

By extreme, they meant "parents would have to hang wet nappies out to dry all year round, keep them for years for use on younger children, and make sure the water in their washing machines does not exceed 60C."

Hmmm, as a mother of two and user of cloth nappies, that actually doesn't sound in the least extreme. I hang the nappies on the line all year round as a matter of course (or indoors by the fireplace in winter). My nappies were mostly hand-me-downs from my sister's kids and have lasted quite well through my two - with still at least a year or so to go. We don't use a hot wash to wash them and we don't use bleach or NapiSan or the like.

In New Zealand, where I live, there are added considerations that weigh in against the disposable nappies as well - and up their carbon footprint. There are no disposable nappies manufactured in New Zealand - so all brands available here are imported, which means additional transport costs.

But ultimately, should this report prove to be the definitive word in the cloth vs. disposable debate I would still choose reusable nappies.

According to the study, the main environmental impacts of disposable nappies are in their manufacture - that includes the raw material production and waste management - whereas for reusable nappies the impacts relate mostly to the washing and drying of the nappies.

While I have no say in how disposable nappies are produced, I can make choices that will mitigate the environmental impacts of cloth nappies:
  • I can choose to make my own cloth nappies
  • I can choose to use organically grown fabrics as much as possible
  • I can choose to wash in cold water
  • I can choose to dry pail rather than soak in chemicals
  • I can choose to use an energy efficient washing machine that goes easy on the water
  • I can choose to line dry the nappies
  • I can choose to keep them for any subsequent children I may have or hand them on to someone else who needs them . . .
All these choices available to me mean that I can lower the environmental impact of the cloth nappies I use, something I just can't do with disposable nappies.

Personally, knowing what goes into making disposable nappies and the chemicals involved in their manufacture, I am less comfortable with these impacts on the environment and I remain convinced that my cloth nappies are kind to the environment in ways that matter to me and that disposable nappies are not.

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