Nappies for the Earth

Facts and information about why cloth nappies are better for the earth.

Why are cloth nappies better for the earth?

Modern parents who care abot the earth know that disposable nappies are not the only option. But what are the problems with disposables and why are cloth nappies a better environmental choice?


Every child wearing disposable nappies will contribute 1-2 tonnes of waste to landfill over their lifetime(1). Each year 800 million disposable nappies are dumped in landfill in Australia, comprising an estimated 5% of landfill content(2). Disposable nappies are thought to take around 500 years to break down(2). Even using so-called "biodegradable" nappies, landfill does not currently provide the right composting conditions for them to break down properly(2). Rotting disposable nappies in landfill pollute the groundwater with human waste and product high quanitites of methane, a gas that contributes to global warming(1). Washing cloth nappies at home sends all the human waste into the sewage system where it can be properly processed.


Disposable nappies require water and power in manufacturing. A study done at the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne found that cloth nappies use 2.3 times less water, less energy and a smaller land area for raw materials(3). A 1995 Brisbane study found that reusuable cloth nappies consumed half as much energy over their lifecycle than disposables(4).

Why is there a debate about cloth vs disposable nappies?

In the 1980s and 1990s disposable nappy companies producted research that showed that disposables do not consume any more energy than cloth nappies. However, their research was based on old-fashioned cotton terry cloth nappies in the UK and US. It did not take into account modern Australian (hot climate) cloth nappy practices, including dry-bucketing, water-wise washing machines and line drying in the sun. In addition, modern materials like hemp are sustainable crops requiring less water than cotton.

Recently in 2005 an independent study by the Environmental Agency in the UK conducted a life-cycle analysis of cloth and disposable nappies and concluded that "there is no significant difference between any of the environmental impacts"(5). This study is widely quoted by disposable nappy manufacturers to justify their business. It found that "electricity use for nappy care is the most significant single contributer to the impacts assessed"(5). The study assumed that cloth nappies are all cotton terry squares that are washed at hot temperatures, 12 at a time (every day), and were tumble-dried most of the time. It did not represent modern cloth nappy practice. Our nappies require only 1/2 a load of washing every second day, which is done in cold water. In Australia, parents can take advantage of the sun, which is free and has a natural sterilizing effect. The study also omitted to consider that cloth nappies can be passed down from one child to the next.


Impact Environmental Agency Study Realistic Modern Cloth Nappy Use
bucket-soaking all nappies soaked in solution dry-bucket method
washing temperature Hot Cold
washing amount 7 loads per week 3.5 half-loads per week
drying tumble-dried most of the time

line-dried most of the time

next child new nappies reuse nappies


">Taking these factors into account, and using the study's own figures, cloth nappies must therefore have a significantly lower environmental impact than disposables. The study has been taken down from the Environmental Agency's own website to be revised following successful campaigning by the Women's Environmental Network. For more information, please visit


Other benefits of cloth nappies

Toilet-train your child earlier

Anecdotal research suggests that children in cloth nappies will be toilet-trained 6-12 months earlier than children in disposables. This is because cloth nappies can help children become aware when they are wet. For toddlers, Buddles (absorbant liners) can be used upside-down, so that the absorbent hemp/organic cotton layer is next to their skin. A study by the American Academy of Paediatrics found that in 1961 90% of children were out of nappies by 2 1/2 years, compared to only 22% being toilet-trained by 2 1/2 years in 1997(6). This "normalisation" of children continuing in nappies until 3 or 4 years of age (or even later) has been attributed to sucessful marketing by disposable nappy manufacturers(7).

No difference in nappy rash

Most nappy rash is caused by urine or faeces remaining in contact with the skin for prolonged periods, causing a build-up of moisture and breakdown of the skin. Nappies should be changed whenever they are wet regardless whether you use cloth or disposable nappies. Studies have shown that there is no difference in the rates of nappy rash using disposable or cloth nappies(8).

Dr C. Roxburgh G.P. 2008


  1. Zero Waste New Zealand Trust.,
  4. Olive R. 2004. A Life Cycle Analysis of Disposable, Reusable and Compostable Nappies Under Brisbane Conditions.Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Queensland. Thesis.
  5. Women’s Environmental Network. 2005. Environment Agency nappy report is seriously flawed. Media Release. Available at
  6. Schum TR et al. 2002. Sequential Acquisition of Toilet-Training Skills: A Descriptive Study of Gender and Age Differences in Normal Children. Pediatrics; 109: e48.
  7. Ravenel SD. 2002. Naturally Acquired or Taught Skills? (Response to Schum et al).
  8. Stein H. 1982. Incidence of diaper rash when using cloth and disposable diapers.The Journal of Pediatrics, 101: 721-723.