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Real Nappies

Real Nappies and Other Alternatives to Disposable Nappies

Disposable nappies may account for 4% of rubbish going to landfill sites.
On average, each child might use about 6,500 nappies by the age of two and a half, which translates to more than 10,000 tonnes of untreated sewage every year [Ref: Surrey County Council]. According to the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) research, 3 billion nappies are thrown away in the UK every year, 8 million every day, with about 90% ending up in landfill. Many County Council sites give statistics of numbers of disposable nappies used in their area.
Most household waste (including disposable nappies) goes to landfill sites, which can cause serious environmental problems since rotting waste generates methane gas plus a toxic liquid called leachate. Normally raw sewage cannot be disposed of in this way, so just think how much worse the situation is made when nappies are thrown away with household rubbish! Also, it is estimated that each nappy can take up to 200 years to naturally degrade [Which? 2013], so this in itself creates landfill problems. Apart from damage to the environment, there are potential risks to your child when wearing disposable nappies from the chemicals contained in them.
A government report published by the Environment Agency was updated in October 2008 and found that reusable nappies can be 40% better for the environment than disposable nappies, but only when sensible steps are taken to reduce the environmental impact of washing and drying them. 
So, what is the bottom line? Consider changing to using one of these alternatives: Reusable Nappies (Real Nappies), Eco Disposables or Laundry Services.

Reusable Nappies (Real Nappies)
Gone are the days of the old Terry squares needing skills in origami to fold to the right size and the old big safety pins, although you can still choose this option if you like, and you can buy all sorts of different colours too. Today's real nappies (waterproof pants, or wraps) are made from soft, breathable fabrics, most are cotton, some organic. They come in different styles according to the supplier and a variety of sizes (many sites on the Nappies section of our Hazardous Waste page show alternatives with pictures). These real nappies are tailored to fit the baby, are easy to put on and are normally fastened with Velcro, rather like disposables nappies! By using biodegradable one-way liners most of the solid waste can be flushed straight down the toilet, where sewage belongs; liners that are only wet can be composted.
In response to the increasing demand for real nappies, many sites provide useful information; for example, Go Real, the Real Nappy Information Service, aims to provide independent of information on all aspects of Real Nappies. WEN estimates that about 15% of parents now use cloth nappies. There are stated to be over 1200 retail outlets in the UK and 75 local nappy sellers plus numerous laundry services and mail order companies, so it is now much easier to find and use cloth nappies.
Washing hanging out in Srinagar
Washing in Srinagar:
Click to enlarge

Using Real Nappies does not mean lots of extra work and expense.
Using real nappies does not have to mean lots of washing, safety pins and bulky nappies. You can either buy nappies to wash at home, or use a nappy laundering service which will deliver fresh, sterilised nappies to your door regularly and take away the dirty ones, which you store in a lined, deodorised bin. Many County Councils work with or offer their own nappy laundering services and/or incentive schemes. The Go Real site has a Nappy Finder tool giving information about local nappy related services including Council Schemes, Trial Kits, Laundries, advice services, nappy shops etc. The 'Fill-your-pants' web site gives a list of Real Nappy Council Incentive Schemes. The consumer magazine Which? has produced an interesting summary about Choosing nappies: washable vs disposable

Nor need it be an expensive alternative. WEN (in a 2006 study) states that home laundered nappies could save parents up to £500 on the cost of keeping a baby in disposables. And, that's for the first child alone, so that's a statistic to impress! Of course the savings increase by using the same nappies on subsequent babies or by buying second-hand.
Charges for the service are considered to be very competitive and discounts may be available for more than one infant at the same address. As well as aiding the problem of disposal, reusable nappies significantly reduce the consumption of raw material (all those nappies and the packaging!) and so also saves energy.
Many councils offer incentive schemes to parents supporting the environment by using washable nappies, including cash, vouchers or free samples; the objective being to divert this type of waste from landfill. This was led by West Sussex CC who started their real nappy reward scheme in 1999.
On our Hazardous Waste page you can find links to several companies who sell real nappies and/or offer laundering services.
Predictably the main suppliers of disposable nappies put forward counter arguments, some of which are undeniably valid. But then, to coin a phrase, this market is big business.

However if all this does sound just too much, then Eco Disposable nappies are a possible alternative.
Eco disposables seem to us to be the best option for many people, offering the convenience of disposable nappies combined with ecologically and environmentally friendly methods of production and biodegradable disposal.
Right now there appear to be a relatively small number of companies producing eco disposables, and none in the UK, although their products are increasingly available in the UK, and obviously available via the web. The majority of literature and information available appears to be from the manufacturers; our investigations show a paucity of independent and scientific information.

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  The main features of Eco Disposables are (although not all the makes offer all these features):
  • they are manufactured using some or all recycled material
  • the core is made with some recycled material, wood pulp or cotton blend
  • chlorine or bleaching agents are not used - this can make them off-white in colour (which apparently not everyone likes - but surely nappies don't stay white for long anyway?!)
  • they are claimed to be biodegrade, without leaving harmful residues, for example you can put them on your compost heap or wormery, or recycle with your compost via the council where this service is offered
  • the packaging is degradable, e.g. cellulose
  • they are free from deodorants, lotions, perfumes, dyes, dioxins or bleach which can all be irritants, especially for a baby's skin
  • they are free from the absorbent gel (polysodium acyrlate), found in normal disposables.
Laundry Services
As a further possibility, as referred to in the above, many councils and companies offer nappy laundry services using real cloth nappies. They collect the dirty nappies from your home and deliver clean nappies in replacement. This alternative will not be acceptable to everyone but it saves you the time, effort and hassle of washing your baby's nappies. The Go Real site's Nappy Finder tool gives information about local nappy related services including Laundry Schemes.

The use of Real Nappies is still a growing trend. Choosing to use them is not as unpleasant as you might have thought; you should find it will save you money at a time when its terribly difficult to balance the budget. The environment, both locally and globally will be much better for it too and not least of all, your baby will really feel the benefit.
If, after reading this, you still can't face the prospect of washing nappies or using laundry services, then a second best alternative is to make sure you choose Eco Disposables.


By Brenda Shaw  

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Originated 29 November, 2004,  Last Amended: 27 October, 2013