Disposable vs reusable nappies
Everyone wants the best for their baby, but they also want to
make sure they are doing the right thing for the environment.
The long running debate of reusable versus disposable nappies
has now been clarified by a major Government sponsored and
independently reviewed study in the United Kingdom in 2005*, which
was updated in 2008**.
This thoroughly documented study assessed a wide range of
activities associated with manufacture, use and disposal of
disposable and reusable nappies which can affect the
To quote the 2008 updated report in its consideration of shaped
reusable nappies: "The environmental impacts of using shaped
reusable nappies can be higher or lower than using disposables,
depending on how they are laundered. The report shows that, in
contrast to the use of disposable nappies, it is consumers'
behaviour after purchase that determines most of the impacts from
Carbon footprint of disposable and reusable
In the 2008 update to the UK report, An updated lifecycle
assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies**, it was
found that on average, reusable nappies had a slightly higher
carbon footprint than disposable nappies, when laundered under
typical household conditions.***
- For reusable nappies, the carbon footprint is heavily dependent
on the conditions of washing and drying.
- The carbon load can be anywhere between 81% higher to 38% lower
than disposable nappies depending on factors such as water
temperature, use of tumble dryers or line drying and use by
- The update found that the carbon footprint for disposable
nappies has been reduced by 12% since the previous study and
continues to reduce as nappies get thinner.
- This also means a reduction in energy, raw materials,
transportation and overall waste for disposable nappies.
The study reconfirms that both nappy systems have a similar
Laundering of reusable nappies
The environmental effects of reusable nappies are often not
discussed. Whether washed at home or in a commercial laundry, the
environmental impacts of laundering reusable nappies need to be
- Washing and drying reusable nappies uses large amounts of
energy such as gas and electricity which emit carbon dioxide, a
- Significant water usage (around 19 tonnes for every 1 tonne of
laundry washed) is also required.
- Chemicals used, such as pre-wash soakers and detergents, add
substantial loads to waste water.
Depending on the choices made by consumers these factors can
result in a greater or lesser impact.
What's the verdict: do reusable nappies have an
environmental advantage over disposables?
Independent and objective studies by the Australian Consumers'
Association's consumer study of nappy performance since 1999, and
most recently 2009 (ref), conclude:
"For years there's been an ongoing debate over which type of
nappy has the least impact on the environment. While it might seem
clear cut that reusable cloth nappies would be a more
environmentally friendly option than disposables, in fact there are
environmental costs associated with using both."****
This and the other life cycle assessment studies found that
nappy alternatives have similar overall impacts on the environment
in a typical usage scenario. The main differences are in the type
of impact which occurs at each stage of each product's life cycle
such as the manufacture of both reusable and disposable nappies,
the use of water, energy and chemicals for washing reusable nappies
and the landfill impact of disposables.
So, based on these studies and conclusions, we would suggest
that in a typical nappy usage scenario, parents can make a guilt
free choice based on non-environmental factors such as performance,
cost and convenience of the product.
Nappies and landfill
The chart below shows that nappies make up around 3% of all
domestic waste (measured by weight) and only 1% of landfill (total
urban solid waste). Food and garden waste accounts for 59% of the
total domestic waste going to landfill. Source: Waste Avoidance
and Resource Recovery in NSW - A Progress Report, NSW DEC Aug
Innovating to reduce nappy bulk
Kimberly-Clark is committed to finding ways to reduce the impact
of our products on the environment and landfill.
Over the past 10 years, we have reduced the bulk of our nappies
by over half, substantially reducing their landfill impact and we
continue to research ways to minimise our impact on the
*Simon Aumônier & Michael
Life Cycle Assessment of
Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK, Environment Agency,
**Simon Aumônier, Michael
Collins, & Peter Garrett.
An updated lifecycle
assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies [PDF, 37
pages, 171 kB], Science Report - SC010018/SR2, Oct 08, The
Environment Agency, Bristol, UK.
***This is referred
to as the 'baseline' in the updated UK Lifecycle study. This
baseline scenario assumed that nappies are used on one child only,
dry-pailed (not soaked in sanitising solution) and washed in a
washing machine with an average energy efficiency rating for
appliances owned in 2006. Average use of
tumble driers and washer-driers was taken, and it was assumed
that three-quarters of nappies are line dried outside and the
remainder are tumble-dried. Nappies were assumed to be washed with
wraps at 60°C. It was assumed each wrap is used twice between
washes. The agency considered other scenarios, but with the
exception of this baseline and reuse on a second child, they
considered other uses to be 'extremes rather than general
Nappies, Toilet Training and Bathing, (Updated 2 September
2009), Reprinted from choice.com.au - with the permission of the
Australian Consumers' Association (ACA).