Environmental Impact of Nappies (Part 1 of 3)

Most people would agree nappies are a necessity, and most would also agree that looking after our environment is pretty high on the ‘Important Things’ list. So, I decided to take a deeper look into the environmental impact of nappies.

Looking into the environmental issues associated with nappies is like falling down the rabbit hole. The hardest part about writing this blog was knowing where to start, how much to include, and how to keep from writing an entire essay. So, I’ve done two things:
1. I’m splitting this up in to a series of blogs, in more bite size chunks and
2. I’m just going to focus on the comparison between disposable nappies and cloth nappies.
I've not delved too much into variety between brands of nappies and washing methods – we can talk about that later.

I decided to look at a life cycle approach of a nappy, from start to finish, including production, use, and disposal.

  Disposable Nappies

Cloth Nappies

You may think one or the other has the obvious environmental advantage, but it's really not that black and white. Both cloth and disposable nappies impact on our environment; both consume natural resources, use energy, create potential health issues, pollute the water and air, and create waste. The question really is - who is the bigger offender.

There is a lot of research around nappies and I have listed my references for all three blogs at the end and I believe that the information I looked at gave a pretty good comparison of the two versions of nappies.

Production of Nappies

So, let’s start at the very beginning… Producing nappies.  The life cycle diagram above is simplified, and the production of nappies is actually made up of the production of each of its parts – sounds complicated, huh?! For cloth it is more simple, because it is just cotton (or other fibre depending on the cloth nappies you buy), but for disposables it is definitely more complicated as there are many different materials that make up a disposable nappy.  During my research there didn't appear to be much data on the waterproof part of cloth nappies, such as wool, PUL, microfleece, suede cloth etc, and these would have environmental impacts as well.  Most studies focused on cotton, possibly because this makes up the core part of the nappy, and is the part washed most frequently (depending on your nappy brand).

Cloth Nappies

We’ll start with cloth nappies, and we can’t deny it, it takes a lot of resources to produce cloth nappies. However, one huge advantage is that cloth nappies tend to be made from renewable resources, such as cotton, bamboo or hemp. The downsides to cotton is that it is very heavily fertilised and is a herbicide intensive crop. Cotton is also a very water hungry crop and if grown in areas with water shortages, such as China, this can cause a drain on those resources. Our comparison chart below shows water use for cotton grown in Australia, a hot climate that requires irrigation. 

In reality, a very small percentage of the cotton grown in the world is used for nappies and this means the water consumption used for the cotton of cloth nappies is actually quite small. In fact, one baby only needs 10kg of cotton for 2 years in nappies. 

Cotton nappy production (and use) can also cause air pollution, although never to the same extent and not as toxic as the chemicals used in disposable nappies. Additionally, even the use of chlorine to bleach cloth nappies is far less than the amount used for bleaching paper products for disposable, and far less harmful as paper bleaching releases far more toxic fumes.

At Real Nappies, our cotton prefolds are made from Indian cotton – a country that has a monsoon season and gets a lot of rain. Additionally, we have recently introduced an Organic cotton range, which does not use the fertilisers and herbicides of traditional cotton growing, and is not bleached, taking out a lot of the environmental harm caused by the production of cloth nappies.

Comparison between resource use for Cloth and Disposable Nappies 

Disposable Nappies

Now, lets look at disposable nappies. Disposable nappies use a lot of resources and, unfortunately, a lot of non-renewable resources, for example it takes over 1,500 litres of crude oil to produce enough disposables for baby until potty trained (at 2.5yrs). 

Additionally, it is estimated that over 140kg of wool, 20kg of petroleum and 10kg of chlorine are used to produce enough disposable nappies for one baby each year. Most studies conclude that disposables nappies will use more non-renewable resources than cloth nappies.

Most of a disposable nappy, about 40%, is made up of paper, which sounds good because that's recyclable and sustainable right? Actually, 70% of the paper used for disposables comes from trees (it takes 4.5 trees per baby in disposables per year), and unfortunately, tree production requires a lot of resources including energy, water, pesticides etc, and our forests are being depleted faster than they are replanted.  10kg of cotton (for the production of cloth nappies) suddenly looks tiny next to 4.5 trees (for the production of disposable nappies).

Water and air pollution is also an issue as production of disposable nappies releases dangerous chemicals into our environment, such as sodium polyacrylate, chlorine, dioxin, TBT etc.  Turning wood pulp into paper requires large amounts of water, and in terms of energy, disposable nappies use nearly 6 times the amount of energy to produce than cloth nappies. 

Additionally, the waste water from just the production of disposable nappies is more damaging to the environment than the growing, production and use (yes, that includes the washing) of cotton cloth nappies. 


So, for Part 1 we have only looked at the production of nappies, but already we can see that the production of disposable nappies is a far greater risk to our environment, with a greater production of toxic waste and more use of renewable and non-renewable resources. The production of cotton, while it can be toxic and use a lot of resources, particularly if not organic, it is still using mainly renewable resources, and not nearly as hard on our environment.

Remember, at Real Nappies we have organic cotton prefolds that mean they are even better for the environment (and your baby)!

How you can make a difference:

  • Use Cloth Nappies
  • Buy Organic Cloth Nappies - Buy them HERE


Continue reading... Part two: Environmental Impact of Nappy Use.