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Disposable, reusable or eco? Nappy pros and cons

Waste not or wash not? The pros and cons of the three nappy styles

Posted: 6 November 2010
by Kimberley Smith



Easy to use. They don't require any folding and fasten easily with sticky tabs. After use they need to be wrapped in a plastic bag and put in the bin.

Disposal. As the name suggests, easy to get rid of. Particularly useful when you’re out and about with your baby and don't want to cart used nappies around with you.

No laundry. No washing and drying needed so you don’t come into contact with any more poo than absolutely necessary!


Cost. Disposable nappies are expensive and as you cannot use them again, it’s a continual spend until your baby potty trains. Even if you do this early, you’ll still shell out around £1000 in your baby’s first two years.

Space. Packs of disposable nappies are bulky and you need to be able to keep a few packs so you’re not always lugging them back from the shops.

Environment. The biggest environmental impact of disposable nappies is their contribution to landfill. More than eight million disposable nappies go into landfill sites every day in the UK alone. Before that there are all the raw materials and resources required for production (energy, paper pulp, chemicals, absorbent gels and plastics) which all add up.

Chemicals. The chemicals used in disposable nappies help to keep them absorbent, including crystals, which turn to gel when they’re wet. Though there is no evidence to suggest these may be harmful to babies, if you’re trying to avoid his exposure to non-natural substances, you may want to steer clear.



Cost. Fans of reusables have estimated you can save around £500 by using them rather than disposables. See cons for more on reusable cost.

Environment. By reusing your cloth nappies, you will avoid hundreds of disposables heading for landfill. They also don’t contain chemicals used in disposables and their production is less likely to harm the environment. However see cons for the other side to the story.

Baby’s skin. The natural fabrics in reusable nappies are less likely to cause nappy rash and can be kinder to your baby’s skin. They can be made of different materials so if one irritated, there are others you can try.

Space. As you wash and reuse the nappies, they don’t take up as much space as disposables.

Easy to use. Modem reusables are not so different from disposables in terms of usage so you may find they are just as easy to get on with.


Disposal. This is where the work comes in with cloth nappies. If you use nappy liners you may find that you don’t need to soak your nappies first. But most mums soak them in a nappy bin until you're ready for a wash, or dry pail nappies (you can get waterproof laundry bags that go straight into the washer with the nappies) and disinfect the bucket with tea tree or lavender oil, which also banishes the pooey smell. Many modern nappies recommend washing at 40 degrees, but you might find you need to run a hotter wash or use some kind of nappy sanitiser to avoid a lingering smell. You'll then need to dry them of course, which will require space and time if you don’t have a drier or prefer not to use one.

Cost. The initial outlay is expensive as you’re buying everything you’ll need to keep your baby dry for the next three years! Ongoing costs include nappy soak, detergent and extra energy costs from washing and drying. They can still work out cheaper than disposables.

Environment. While they’re generally assumed to be more environmentally friendly, it’s important to take into account the cost to the environment of caring for cloth nappies. Extra washing at high temperatures (if required) and tumble drying will have a negative effect. Check for nappies that can be washed at low temperatures and try to line dry where possible.



Disposal. These are disposable so they're just as easy to get rid of but are designed to decompose in landfill.

No laudry. Again, as they're disposable there's no washing required.

Environment. Better for the environment as they use less chemicals to make and are designed to decompose naturally.

Baby's skin. Fewer chemicals are used to improve absorbancy so there is less for your baby's skin to react against.


Cost. Tend to be more expensive than either of the other options.

Environment. Still go into landfill and some of the eco benefits are exaggerated so it's worth reading the small print!

Absorbancy Because they don't use the same absorbant chemicals disposables do, eco-disposables can lack the absorbancy of normal nappies. But this will depend on your little one as well and is definitely worth investigating.

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Discuss this story

Now that I'm halfway through I've decided that it's time to start thinking about the little decisions that we'll all have to make sooner or later.
With my 2-yr-old, LP, we just bought disposables and never really thought about the idea of reusable nappies. I think all the old ideas about scraping, boiling and scrubbing them entered my mind. I know that things have changed these days and they are easier to use and clean than before.
However, I'm still in debate. Obviously, I'd like to do my bit for the environment (this is the environment my children will grow up and the idea that my son's nappies will still be degrading while his great-great grandchildren are alive is a huge insentive). I know that the initial outlay is much more expensive than buying disposables but over time I worked out that I'd be spending about £1000 on nappies by the time my baby is 2 1/2, whereas I could buy newborn-to-toddler reusables for about £230.
I found disposables easy to use but cost-wise and environmentally-wise reusables seem a good idea but it's still the idea of looking after a toddler and a newborn while trying to wash and launder nappies that concern me.
Does anyone have any advice?
Thanks in advance
Ginny X

Posted: 27/01/2006 at 12:22

Good question. There are a lot of services now who will launder and deliver your nappies for you every week. They tend to average between £7 and £9 for the service, which is a bit more than buying disposable nappies, but would probably help you sleep better at night!
There's also the cost of having the washing machine on all day if you do it yourself (not only your elec bill but using up that electricity in the first place).
However, you're right. We used disposables with our son and that was very convenient, but it does make you shudder to think of that growing pile of old nappies we're stocking up for the next geenration.
Good debate. What does everyone else think?

Posted: 27/01/2006 at 12:39

Hi Ginny,

I've decided already that I'm going to use re-usables for the reasons you outline above. But I haven't yet started with them, so can't offer much practical advice. I do have experience with the old terry nappies from helping my mum with my three younger siblings, particularly the last two. From what I remember it wasn't so much of a fuss as people make out, and given today's washing machines and the new nappies I'm hoping it won't be too bad.

I think hardest will be out and about, and I will probably buy some eco-friendly disposables for certain situations, though I think that all-in-ones are probably quite useful there too.

We've bought as eco-friendly as possible drier for emergencies and to finish the nappies off in if they need softening up (and also because we just lost our laundry drying room to the nursery!) I know you can get things like drier balls to speed up the drying process.

My decision was reinforced yesterday when a friend was over and had to change her son's nappy. She then brought it to me and asked where to put it. It was a corkingly smelly one. Yuk!! I was thinking of all that pooh that could have gone straight down the loo. I felt pretty bad putting it in a plastic bag and straight into the outside bin, and that was just one!

Posted: 27/01/2006 at 13:42

Sorry Laura, missed your message there as I started and then came back.

I personally think that there are so many options now for reducing your washing impact (get the most environmentally friendly machine you can, wash at low temps, use the most biodegradable detergent - you can even get these washing balls that require no detergent at all), plus general electricity usage awareness that cuts down your usage elsewhere, that the evil of having your machine on more is outweighed by the landfill aspect. You don't even need to boil wash nappies any more if you have a decent washing maching and get rid of most of the pooh as it arrives - using biodegradable nappy liners is a big help, and there are also re-usuable liners that you don't have to scrape the pooh off.

There's first of all all the production impact of the disposables - all that plastic wrapping and the chemicals used - and then the disposal impact.

I think the argument that re-usables are as environmentally damaging as disposables holds more pooh than water.

Then there's the other side of it that I just find it an unpleasant idea to have a week's worth of pooh sitting in a bin in the house.

That's just my tuppen'orth.

Posted: 27/01/2006 at 13:54

Absolutely agree that there's no way reuseables are equally as damaging as disposables, but when you have a child, you certainly see your electricity usage because of how many washes you are doing a week. It was purely something to consider.
There are some amazing designs now, of reusable types and it's a real industry in itself, which is great!

Posted: 27/01/2006 at 15:30

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