Before bub came along, we’d made the decision to cloth nappy. We’re not particularly crunchy types, but we were pretty horrified with how many nappies we’d need to get a single child from birth to potty training age. That number? About 6000. We’re about four months in and we’ve already done over 1000 nappy changes according to our baby tracker app.
The only times we’ve used disposables was at the hospital, and the two weeks following vaccinations, mainly because the first few vaccinations will involve live rotavirus. And while good hygiene will mitigate potential issues, we just don’t want to mess around with gastro. The amount of rubbish generated from two weeks following the first lot of vaccinations alone was worrying, especially when you consider the number of wipes you go through as well.
This isn’t meant to be a lecture on using cloth, but we get asked a lot about why we’re doing it, and how hard it is. I’ll likely update as time goes on, but here are our observations thus far.
Yes, there’s quite a bit of it. At newborn stage, it was a pre-wash (to get the literal crap out) followed by a full wash every day to ensure we had enough clean nappies. Now it’s a pre-wash every day, and a full wash every second day unless we have other laundry items to pad out the load. It seems like a lot of work, but once you have a routine going, getting the washing done isn’t a problem.
Having a winter bub, it was a struggle to get nappies dry in time before we ran out. Using flats (old-fashioned nappies) helped. We only used the dryer maybe three times. Our drying rack is in constant use, and it sits in our lounge room where we are most active. When we had the heater on, which we did often as our old house gets quite cold, that would help dry the laundry as well.
The process has also made us realise just how few clothes we actually need because we toss our clothes in with the baby laundry rather than having to wait a full week (or two?) to do a load like we used to. Downside, those few items in heavy rotation will probably wear out faster. Without the cloth nappies, we likely would have done more laundry anyway because bub is a bit chucky, and doesn’t always do it immediately after a feed, so we’ve gotten used to relatively frequent wardrobe changes.
I also had a disinclination towards pink/red clothes for bub. Not (just) because I thought they were too girly, but because I separate out laundry into darks, lights and reds, and I didn’t want to have to worry about washing the few red baby items we have separately to avoid colour run. You may be interested to know that for some reason, baby items don’t seem to run. The few baby clothes we have in dark colours and various shades of pink have not posed a problem. And our rainbow of cloth nappies get washed in the same load. Why regular adult clothes don’t get made using this strange colourfast dye is beyond me.
This one comes up a lot. People say they don’t want to deal with poop. In my mind, by dint of having a tiny human in your lives, you’re going to have to come to terms with the three Ps – Pee, Poop and Puke. Sure you want to minimise your exposure to it, but once you’ve made the decision to have children, I think you have given up the privilege of being able to be precious about it.
As there are going to be many instances where you will have to deal with evacuated fluids, you may as well get used to it now. So when the big disasters hit, it won’t affect you as much. That’s the theory anyway. Will see how that goes in practice.
There is also a thing that goes around that you don’t get poo-splosions in cloth. Not sure about that, as you definitely get leakage if you don’t get the nappy fit right. We also have a heavy wetter who more often than not sleeps through the night, so we need to get the absorbency just right, otherwise we wake to her being really annoyed about having soaked through. Mitigating this particular challenge is a work in progress.
This one is a bit trickier to quantify.
Financially, depending on the brand of disposables and wipes you use, this will vary a bit. I did some costings, and disposables plus other consumables like wipes and nappy bags could run between $3000-4000 from birth to potty using common supermarket brands or the more well known ‘eco’ ones. Cost of cloth for full time use could go between $100-600 (or more) depending on whether you’re using flats, modern cloth nappies, cloth wipes, etc. And if you’re using sized nappies, you’ll have a higher outlay because you’re purchasing a set each time bub goes up a size, compared to using an adjustable one size fits most style which can take you from birth to potty.
For water and energy usage, most families I’ve read about have found there isn’t a significant increase in bills, but I expect if you’re starting your comparison from 0 children to 1 child, there’ll be a notable difference. We haven’t done full analysis on that for our household yet, but given we went from doing laundry a couple times a week to essentially daily, there’s going to be a jump there. Having an efficient washing machine, and reading the manual to identify the most efficient programs to use will help as well.
More laundry to hang and fold is going to take up time, but it’s not a significant burden (yet, I suppose). Right now, life is all about bub, so it’s just another household task to slip in while she sleeps, and sometimes I’ll hang laundry and narrate what I’m doing while she watches.
There is a common infographic that goes around saying that a disposable nappy will still be around in 500 years because of the plastics and synthetics that go into them. The same can be said for cloth or modern cloth nappies which have the PUL outers. However in this case, the impact is in the volume, as you’ll maybe have 24-36 cloth nappies vs thousands of disposables.
You’ll also see impact breakdowns similar to the following:
Any kind of impact assessment isn’t going to be entirely accurate, nor will it be black and white. Aside from those factors mentioned, there’s also carbon footprint from things like transportation cost of the final product as well as the materials and other resourced used to manufacture them. And that’s not even addressing the issue of microfibres and microfleece (google it) used in a lot of cloth nappies (not to mention clothing in general) which are contributing to the plastic pollution of our waterways and food chain. Nor does it address the ethical considerations of the true sustainability and production requirements of bamboo textiles, another popular material for cloth nappies.
You will also have to consider if you’re buying new or second-hand. If you buy second-hand, the life of your nappies will be shorter so you may have to buy more to replace them as they reach EOL. And if you buy sized options, you need more nappies as your child grows. There’s the efficiency of your washing machine, and your wash routine and detergents used. If you have solar or off grid power or a water tank etc.
As I mentioned, we’ve chosen predominantly second-hand to lower our outlay and have better coverage across different styles to accommodate bub as she grows. Once they reach EOL (which a couple of our covers have already), then we’ll send them on to charity organisations which will refurbish them for those in need, and extend their life even further before they end up in landfill at worst, or textile recyclers at best. These are choices we hope will keep our footprint and expenditure tighter than if we went with disposables. This doesn’t resolve the microfibre pollution issue, but you have to pick your battles, otherwise you’ll go insane trying to eliminate all the ‘problematic’ factors in your life.
And the journey continues.
 Approximately 12 changes a day for the first month, 10 between 1-5 months, about 8 for the rest of the first year, then 6 until potty training.
 12-18 wipes per day depending on the number of nappies and how epic the poop is.
 In my experience anyway. I know people who have had colour run issues, but I haven’t found this (yet).
 In quotes because eco doesn’t actually mean better for the environment. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s an element of green-washing going on with the marketing of some of these nappy brands.
 Most detergents are actually ‘safe’ these days in Australia due to the treatment plants that process waste water, and the fact that phosphorous has been phased out of detergents sold Australia and New Zealand.