The great debate: reusable vs disposable nappies

By Lorrin Windahl.

I’ve recently had my first child and, being very aware of the impact I have on the environment, I have been faced with a dilemma – reusable or disposable nappies. And I thought the timing of this post would be quite apt considering the British royal family have just added another little prince to their tribe. So this one is for you Kate, in case you are still sitting on the fence.

There are arguments for and against reusable nappies. But it seems that a lot of the data that is available online is produced with a vested interest by disposable nappy manufacturers or tree hugging hippies. Some people argue that they use too much water and energy as you are forever washing them. Others argue that disposable nappies just pile up in landfill and take forever to break down.  Well, after some thought and deliberation, I have come to my own conclusion. Reusable is better. And here’s why I think this.

Naty nappies by Nature Babycare use natural and renewable materials.

Naty nappies by Nature Babycare use natural and renewable materials.

Firstly, my understanding of lifecycle assessment (LCA) is that you always look to see where the product has the greatest impact on the environment – manufacture, use or end-of-life. In my opinion disposable nappies, because they take so long to degrade, have the largest impact on the environment when they are discarded into landfill. So, considering reusable nappies break down earlier and a lesser amount is discarded into landfill then this is the better alternative.

Secondly, I think they win out due to the amount of material used. With disposable nappies they are only used once. Therefore, if you are using about six nappies a day for around two years then this adds up to a large amount of material. On the other hand, a reusable nappy can be reused many times without being replaced. Imagine the resources consumed during the manufacture of the disposable nappy. Then the packaging required to ship it. And the carbon miles it travels to your door. These all add up. Now compare that to the one-off use of materials to make the reusable nappy. Yes, I agree, it needs washing each time it’s used but I still believe this consumes less energy than the manufacture of a new nappy each time. And let’s not even consider the plastic nappy bags that the disposable nappy is placed into before being thrown in the rubbish bin.

The design of the reusable nappy has come along way since the square piece of terry towelling.

The design of the reusable nappy has come along way since the square piece of terry towelling.

I admit my data isn’t based on any in-depth statistical study. It is only based on my understanding of manufacturing and lifecycle assessment. But I do also speak from the experience of using both.

And I do want to point out that the design of both reusable and disposable nappies have come along way since they were first introduced. Disposable nappies are unbelievably absorbent and easy to use. But the best improvement is to the materials used. Companies like Naty have developed disposable nappies that are made of natural and renewable materials. Admittedly they are a bit more expensive but surely it is worth a little extra to reduce our carbon footprints.


Reusable nappy design now includes an absorbent inner layer that detaches.

Reusable nappies have also come along way since the square piece of towelling my mother used.  She would fold them into triangles and use large nappy pins to hold them closed.  But today there is no folding or pinning. They are fastened with press studs or Velcro and include separate inner layers to improve absorbency. They are much more compact too so you don’t need different size clothes if you occasionally use disposable nappies as well.

So, in my opinion, reusable is the way to go to reduce our impact on the environment. And, I think, it also sets a good example for the little ones we are actually putting the nappies on. It shows that we do care about the planet and how we treat it. But, there are always going to be times when the disposable nappy is more convenient or practical. For example, when you are on holiday. I mean, who wants travel with a dirty reusable nappy in their suitcase. Perhaps though, at these times we should be supporting companies, like Naty, who are trying to improve the design and environmental impact of disposable nappies by using renewable and natural materials.

What do you think?

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