Reusable nappies

Do you want the best for your baby, but don’t want to harm the environment? Then use reusable nappies. Contrary to popular belief, modern reusables are cheaper and more hygienic than disposables, and you won't have to spend hours cleaning them.

Reusable nappies

'I don't use renewable nappies because…': '…They aren't as comfortable as disposables.'

If anything, they are more comfortable. Natural cotton and wool allow your baby's skin to breathe, preventing irritation. And because there are many different types and combinations of reusable nappies, you are more likely to find one best suited to your own baby's individual body shape and preference.

Disposable nappy manufacturers promote the fact that their nappies absorb more moisture. But a baby is not uncomfortable in a moist nappy. It is only when the nappy is left on too long that it will make the skin sore. In fact, there are two significant benefits to this feeling of moistness. First of all, the baby learns the basic sensations that will help it to potty train. Second, the carer knows whether the baby is drinking enough, which is incredibly important if your baby has a fever and is in danger of becoming dehydrated.

And finally, it's a myth that reusable nappies leak. If they fit properly, a reusable nappy is no more likely to leak than an average disposable. In fact, a well-fitting reusable will give even better protection than a disposable nappy.

'…They are difficult to use'

You can now buy renewable nappies that are shaped so you don't have to fold them.

Nappy pins have been replaced with Velcro, poppers and elasticated claw-like grips.

Most nappies, wraps and liners can be machine-washed at just 60° centigrade and tumble-dried. If you don't have a tumble dryer, nappies, liners and wraps can be line-dried. If it's raining, a clothes horse, airing cupboard or radiator will do.

In essence, there are two types of reusable nappy: two-part nappies that consist of a nappy and a waterproof wrap to go over it; and all-in-ones consisting of a cloth nappy with a waterproof wrap attached. The latter look similar to disposable nappies, are easier to put on than two-part nappies, but take longer to dry after washing as they are more bulky. Inside each of the two types of real nappy a reusable nappy liner is inserted; these are made from fleece or silk (for sensitive skin).

'…I haven't got time for all the washing'

Once soiled, nappies should be stored in an air-tight nappy bin (costing just a few pounds). This also keeps your house from smelling of used nappies. You can then wash the nappies every second or third day, depending on how many you buy.

The only extra time involved is the few moments each week it takes you to load your washing machine, and just a few more to hang nappies out or put them in the dryer or on the line. And you actually save time by not having to go to the shops all the time to buy more nappies. Or you can send them away to be washed...

If you're not up to the extra washing, you can use a nappy laundry service. At an average cost of £8.50 a week, this is a door-to-door service that will pick up dirty nappies and deliver clean, fresh substitutes. For your nearest reusable nappy laundering service, see

'…They need changing more often’

Regardless of whether you are using washables or disposables young babies need to be changed frequently as their skin is very sensitive to prolonged contact with faeces, urine, creams and powders. Paediatricians recommend new babies be changed 10-12 times a day and older babies six times. A good-quality cotton nappy should only need changing every four hours during the day and 10 to 12 hours at night if your baby sleeps through.

'So they are cheaper and easy to use. But why else should I use them?'

1 To protect your baby's health

Disposable nappies contain super-absorbent gel, the effects of which on baby's skin and genitalia have yet to be researched.

Disposable nappies contain up to 200 chemicals. It is still unknown how many are absorbed through a baby's skin.

A study in 2000 found that disposable nappies keep babies' testicles at higher than normal temperatures, which may affect future fertility.
Disposable nappy manufacturers claim that a dry nappy means a healthy bottom, but harmful bacteria multiply in these dry conditions, and bacteria is the main cause of nappy rash. If you change the nappy at regular intervals throughout the day, and immediately when soiled, and keep the nappy area clean, then there shouldn't be any concerns about nappy rash. An independent study at Bristol University on infants with 'very bad' and 'quite bad' nappy rash, found that the type of nappy worn did not emerge as a significant factor.

2 To protect the environment your baby will grow up to live in

The average baby will go through 5,000 nappies. As 85 per cent of people are using disposables, they now form 4 per cent of all household waste, costing the taxpayer £40m each year to dispose of them.

Of the approximately eight million disposable nappies used in the UK every day, around 7.5 million end up in landfill sites.

Disposable nappies use three and a half times more energy than real nappies to produce, eight times more non-renewable materials and 90 times more renewable resources.

The three billion disposable nappies thrown away each year add one million tonnes of nappy waste to our already overfull landfill sites. They then take up to 500 years to decompose, and produce the potent greenhouse gas methane and leachate, a toxic liquid that can leak into soil and local water supplies. The 10 per cent that aren't landfilled get incinerated, a process that results in the release of carcinogenic dioxins into the atmosphere and creates ash (which does need to be landfilled) containing heavy metals and other toxins.

Some people choose to use 'eco-disposable' nappies, believing them to be better for the environment. Eco-disposables are a viable alternative to conventional disposables when you are travelling and at other times when reusables really aren't practical. They are unbleached, use less plastics and chemicals, and therefore expose babies to fewer synthetic materials. And, theoretically, they are biodegradable. However, as Elizabeth Hartigan from the Women's Environment Network points out, 'eco-disposable nappies do go to landfill just like any other nappies, and in landfill they don't break down'. They are better for the environment than traditional disposables, but they still contribute to the waste problem.

'OK, I want to use reusable nappies. What are the practicalities?'

Where to get them

Reusable nappies are sold in more than 1,250 shops nationwide. To find your nearest reusable nappy agent, laundering service and retailer call the UK Nappy Line on 01983 401 959, or visit its website at

The amount you need

How many nappies you need in total will depend on how often you do the laundry. At least purchase enough nappies and liners for a minimum two days' use.

Getting the right type for your baby

Hartigan says: 'One size doesn't fit all. Parents should consider the shape of the baby.' The easiest way to start is by ordering a nappy trial pack, available through most reusable nappy companies, so you can check the size, fit and style that suit you and your baby best.

Useful extras

For night-time or babies that are heavy wetters you can add booster pads for extra absorbency. Most nappies require a separate waterproof nappy pant or 'wrap'. These are elasticated, often laminated and are designed to ensure no leaks. Wraps don't have to be washed at every nappy change, only when soiled. You should allow for four or five nappy pants for each growth stage. And most parents choose additional one-way liners that are inserted in the nappy and allow wetness to pass away from their baby's skin. Liners also collect solids for separate disposal, making washing nappies easier. Liners are available as biodegradable flush-aways or polyester sheets. You can either use washable or disposable wipes. Finally, you will need a nappy bucket or bin with a tightly fitting lid. For any questions or advice on reusable nappies, the cloth-nappy vendor the Nappy Lady (; 0845 456 2441) will provide you with a free guide tailored specifically to your preferences, and a personal nappy advisor for further queries.

Washing reusable nappies

It is advisable to use non-biological powders, as they are less likely to cause a skin reaction. A brand like Ecover is both kind to the environment and to your colours.

Unless you live in a soft water area, or have a water softener, you'll find your nappies will tend to go hard. However, you should not use fabric conditioners as these will coat the fibres of your nappies and significantly reduce their absorbency and thus cause leaks. Tumble-drying will leave your nappies soft and fluffy: even just a 10-minute burst will do. If you don't have a tumble dryer, a tablespoonful of white vinegar in the conditioner compartment of your washing machine will help remove lime-scale and detergent residues and make nappies softer. Giving laundered nappies a good shake and rub together when they are almost dry is also good for softness.

Community Nappy Schemes

There is an ever growing variety of schemes making life easier for people using reusable nappies.

• The Women's Environmental Network runs a second-hand nappy and wrap exchange. You can contact it on 020 7481 9004, or at

• More and more councils are offering cash incentives to reusable nappy users. For example, North London Waste Authority and Camden Council provide a £35 discount for parents in the north London borough who sign up with an approved nappy laundry service. Give your council a call to see if it offers a similar discount. If it doesn't, ask it why not.

• Density for Sustainability, a scheme launched in north London by community-based not-for-profit nappy delivery service Nappy Ever After, enables parents on low incomes to use reusable nappies. An innovative social enterprise in a densely populated urban area, the scheme lends itself very well to replication elsewhere and already has plans to set up a new local laundry service. Visit:

• Notts Nappy Project is a very innovative and imaginative trial scheme with good links to other programmes. Parents return nappies when they don't need them anymore; these are donated to a Romanian charity. Notts Nappy Project also provides parents with an opportunity to sell on unwanted nappies, and hopes in the future to get real nappy info into training hospitals and universities. Visit:

To find out more about any of the above schemes, or about similar programmes in your area, call the Women's Environmental Network on 020 7481 9004 (email: There is a list of links to local groups on the network's website at

How much do reusables cost?

A basic reusable nappy kit costs:
1 20 terry nappies, costing £38.00
2 'Baby Pants' (plastic wraps) at £2.60 for a pack of six x 2 packs = £5.20
3 A pack of six nappy pins, costing £1.10
4 20 reusable fleece nappy liners, costing £20
Total cost = £64.30
Enough disposable nappies for one baby will cost between £650 and £1,000

The Ecologist’s Green Heroes option costs

1 20 Popolino organic cotton* shaped nappies at £8.25 each, costing £165
2 Four Imse Vimse waterproof wool wraps** at £17.99 each, costing £71.96
3 20 reusable fleece nappy liners, costing £20
TOTAL = £256.96
*Organic cotton is grown without harmful pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers.
**Wool wraps are more environmentally friendly than synthetic plastic wraps.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2005


For ethical and sustainable suppliers of Clothing goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here


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