The great nappy scam

Posted by rosanne on Jul 13, 2009 in Product Recommendation, Sustainable Parenting |

A recent e-mail offered a “great deal”: three reusable nappies for $60! Given that $60 would have paid for all 24 of our old-fashioned cloth squares, I thought that was an outrageous rip-off. Especially given what I know about what’s really used to make them. And don’t even talk to me about “biosposies”!

Recently, due a small bout of nappy rash that we just couldn’t get rid of, my partner and I reluctantly switched to disposable nappies (diapers, for our American readers) for a week or two. (We think what really got rid of the rash was the absolutely amazing Covitol cream β€” it’s 22% cod liver oil and smells like it, but it’s thick and terrific at keeping out the moistness.)

Anyway, because we couldn’t bear the idea of using mass market polluting nappies, we chose Seventh Generation. It’s a US company, so it’s all new material, imported, sigh… but it is chlorine-free [see the company’s ethical rating]. Worse, as my fellow blogger Paula has pointed out, the nifty “unbleached look” is actually a result of them adding a brown dye!

Thankfully, we’re back to our beloved cloth nappies this week. I keep encountering well-meaning parents who say they are using cloth nappies, but they’re all using fancy shaped things whereas when I say “cloth nappy”, I mean old-fashioned, no-nonsense squares of actual cloth.

Now I imagine, given the hassle of washing the damned things, that most people who are using reusable nappies are doing so for environmental reasons. After a fortnight of paying for disposables, I’m willing to concede there’s a financial benefit in it too, even though I’m still gobsmacked at the outrageous prices for “reusables” ($25 a nappy!) when a 12-pack of my flannelette squares was $29.95.

I don’t believe the environmental claims work either, though. I am yet to find a reusable nappy system that is actually made of all-natural materials. I think it’s all a big scam to make us feel like we’re doing the right thing for the planet. I think it’s actually all a bit like conspicuous compassion or greenwash. It’s more about looking like you’re doing the right thing than about actually doing the right thing.

Let’s have a closer look.

The financial equation

We’ll assume around 42 nappies a week, and unfortunately, because I don’t have CHOICE magazine’s resources, ignore the small cost of washing the things [read their very good article comparing cloth versus disposable for that argument]. That’s 2184 nappies a year.

Disposables: Made from 60% new wood pulp and a bunch of chemicals (none of which are toxic to the infant, but none of which are biodegradable either). Having never bought the regular type, I checked a popular grocery store site and discovered they’re around $15 for 30. With absolutely no redeeming features, this method will cost you $1,092 a year.

Biosposies: Chlorine-free, some recycled materials, these nappies are still made overseas and imported (and so have fuel miles). More of the nappy is compostable, but that’s still a lot of landfill. They’re more expensive than standard nappies: around $28 for 30 (and that’s the cheaper price; we found that the smaller alternative stores are selling these for around $38!). With a tiny nod to the idea of greening your impact, this method will cost you a minimum of $2038.40 a year (ouch!).

Reusable shaped nappies: These vary wildly. Baby Beehinds appear to be $25 a pop while Bum Genius are around $45 a pop (the cotton is organic). You get discounts for bulk though. From the packs available, it seems the suggestion is you need at least 24 (and from our experience with cloth squares, I’d agree). I’ll go into the enviro impact of these in a moment, but let’s just look at the money right now. Let’s assume the nappies are adjustable sizes so they should last for the whole lifetime of the baby. For a Bum Genius 24-pack, you pay around $720.Β  The Baby Beehinds “Birth to Potty” pack (24 ‘bamboo’ nappies and covers in various sizes) is $780.

Actual cloth nappies: Again, this depends a little on what you’re after. We looked at organic cotton flats, which we found we could buy a 12-pack for $108, which would make the total cost for nappies $216, plus soakers. Let’s say $28 a wool soaker (probably cheaper if you knit it yourself) and let’s say you need 6. Total for organic is $384. We tried to find bamboo flats (less water intensive to grow) but could only find newborns for $9 each, so we’ll ignore that for now.

We ended up being given 12 flannelette cotton flats, so we actually got ours for free, but when we discovered we needed 24, we bought another pack, for $29.95 at Target. They’re not organic and they are new, so there’s all the environmental impact of growing cotton, but even with 6 wool soakers @ $28 a piece, the total for the whole shebang would be $227.90. (In practice, my darling man is allergic to wool, so we use cotton Eenie covers a friends gave us after her baby outgrew them, so in fact, our total outlay has been $29.95.)

The environmental rip-off

I think what annoys me more than anything about the trendy new shaped reusables is that they tout ‘bamboo’ and ‘organic cotton’ all over the place and hide their nasty chemicals behind acronyms and lack of disclosure. That PUL all the nappy systems have? It stands for poly-urethane laminate. And the poly-urethane laminate has to go over something. That something is usually polyester. Polyester off-gases during its production and for a few years afterwards. And yes, it off-gases volatile organic compounds.

Our very old Eenie covers have PUL nylon, which is better, and off-gases the least of all synthetic materials. If Doug wasn’t allergic to wool, I’d be using it.

I’m yet to find a single shaped nappy system that doesn’t have polyester somewhere in it. And yes, I’ve e-mailed a few of them now, when their advertising made it sound like they were 100% bamboo or organic cotton. For example, have you seen the Bum Genius layer breakdown? Notice how it says “inner design” but fails to mention that layer is polyester?

There must also be a huge second-hand market for these, but if there is, I haven’t heard about it. Everyone I know who has them bought them new. That’s an enormous amount of new material impact again.

So, while I’d love for my darling girl to be in brightly coloured, cleverly shaped and above all trendy-as-can-be nappy pants, she’ll stay in her daggy white cotton for now. The folding really doesn’t take long, especially as her Dad’s a clever clogs and worked out a neat way to roll them up and secure them with a rubber band, ready for use. Now we just have to make sure we diligently apply that barrier cream…

(Oh, and watch this space… “fully compostable” nappies are coming soon, and we might even get some to test and try to compare them with others… somehow we doubt anything will beat plain old cloth squares for environmental impact though. Seriously.)

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Jul 13, 2009 at 3:27 pm

I remember back when I was pregnant initially, thinking that advocating cloth-nappying was obviously anti-feminist πŸ˜‰ “How dare anyone suggest I should be scraping poo,” I thought. I had a bunch of self-justifying references, like the UK study which says that cloth & disposables have the same environmental impact, and a site saying that disposables cure nappy rash, and it was obviously all just way too hard!

But now I see all that as being a symptom of not having looked into it. That UK study was funded in part by a company that makes disposable nappies and uses a commercial nappy wash service as their comparison point for cloth. For every site saying to change to disposables to cure nappy rash, there’s another site saying to change to cloth for the same reason – it’s how you use them, not the type of nappy that counts. And there is a whole bunch of resources online with information on nappy folding. I quite like this little U-Tube nappy fold demo.

These days I’m using a modern cloth nappy system for my second child. With more information and peer support I might have tried foldies, or started with cloth sooner.

Jul 13, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Don’t know about Oz, but in the states there is a pretty good market for second hand diapers. People are always selling them online in the cloth diapering community on livejournal. Also has a very large following.

I bought all my cloth diapers 2nd hand, half from Craigslist and half from livejournal users.

I originally thought I would prefer one-sized all in ones with PUL. When I started using cloth diapers my daughter was too small for one-sized diapers so we started with prefolds. They are really cheap and I actually prefer them to the fitted diapers with snaps or touch tape.

There also seems to be a lot of hype about one-sized diapers that will require covers, but have patterned fabric as the outer layer. These diapers run $20-$40 USD each and do not fit “birth to potty learning” as is often stated. And I do not understand why any one would buy a pretty diaper that they were planning on covering.

Beth W.
Jul 13, 2009 at 10:58 pm

We’re using cloth diapers from a service — so we “rent” the diapers rather than purchasing them. On top of that, they handle the washing — and they wash in bulk with graywater, so they can get a lot more clean with a lot less waste. Yes, there’s pollution in the pickup and dropoff, but it’s a semi-environmentally-friendly option we can mostly live with. πŸ™‚

Jul 13, 2009 at 11:13 pm

I think this is the benefit of economies of scale… I live in a city with 5 million people… and yet this year, the last of the nappy services closed its doors, so no more commercial washing. Sigh. The service option is one I originally planned to use, but the organisation closed literally a month before I gave birth.

Jul 14, 2009 at 1:49 pm

I’ve used both flat nappies, prefolds (organic cotton) and reusable nappies on my two kids. I much prefer to use natural fibres with a wool cover (or no cover in summer) as they are much more breathable than PUL anyway and my kids are far less prone to nappy rash. Whilst I understand what you are saying regarding the environmental issues surrounding the use of polyester in nappies, this is only one aspect of the environmental impact for a single part of a nappy (the waterproof layer and or inner liner). There are other environmental issues to consider regarding all types of nappy use (disposable and reusable incl flats), most of which have been looked at in reasonable detail for cloth (both modern and traditional cloth) but not for disposables. It is still more beneficial to use reusables than disposables based on the limited environmental information that is available. Also, there is most definately a second-hand market for reusables in Australia. They can be sold through trading rooms on most nappy/parents websites (through the forums) and also here I’d love to see more people move away from the “throw-away” attitudes that society has developed and take up cloth nappying (in any form) but I don’t think it is going to happen any to a large degree any time soon.

Jul 14, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Hi Kira!

It’s terrific to hear there’s a second-hand market for reusable in Australia. I figured there had to be; I was commenting more on the attitude of most of the Mums in my local Mums group, where it seems to be about the look more than the impact (that might be the part of Melbourne I live in though!)

Also, I never meant to imply that disposables are better than reusables. Thanks for pointing that out. At least 6000 nappies in landfill, all that woodpulp and polyethylene production, destruction of forests? No way it adds up to 24 reusables, no matter how much polyester is in them.

Jul 14, 2009 at 11:27 pm

hanks for clarifying πŸ™‚ I’m from Sydney and I’ve been very disappointed by the responses people have when they find out I’m using cloth nappies (not to mention the very few number of people who actually use them). My mothers group wouldn’t even consider using any type of cloth, even after I’ve proven it isn’t that hard. For a lot of mums, in this area anyway, convenience wins over the environment any day and that’s a really sad state of affairs.

Jul 15, 2009 at 6:15 am

Just peeking back to add another link. All this talk of soakers has me wanting to try and make Katrina’s free soaker pattern. I’ve had this old cardigan put aside for weeks, just waiting for me to find the courage.



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