Water Usage and Cloth Nappies, or, Does the water use argument wash?

Water usage is a real issue for us in Australia, and it’s right that we should be concerned about how much water we use and do what we can to reduce our consumption. I just don’t believe that the water we use in washing reusable nappies is a valid argument against using cloth nappies, unless you’re on tank water or otherwise restricted in your access to water.

There tend to be two water based arguments against using cloth nappies.

1. That the cost of the water and energy used in washing cloth nappies means that cloth and disposable nappies end up costing the same so there’s no benefit. This is completely wrong. Generally the cost of water, energy and detergent used to wash reusable nappies comes to less than $2 a week. You can calculate how much it would cost you here.

2. That in a country like Australia it is wrong to waste water washing nappies when disposables are available.

I read on a forum a long time ago that just because we would save the water we’d use in washing them doesn’t mean we should use plastic cutlery and disposable plates to eat every meal. Neither do we use one-wear disposable clothing, just so we won’t have to use water to wash them. And I've noticed that most of us flush the toilet rather than wear disposable nappies ourselves! These scenarios demonstrate obvious waste. The same common sense should apply to cloth nappies.

There are several studies out there comparing disposable and cloth nappies, including water use. People often don’t consider that large amounts of water (and other resources) are used in the production of disposable nappies. In fact, the same amount of water is used in the production of disposable nappies as in the production and home washing of cotton reusable nappies. This is according to the Life Cycle Assessment carried out in 2009 by the University of Queensland which compared reusable and disposable nappies in Australia.

The argument that disposable nappies are made in China or elsewhere where they don’t have our water shortage issues is also incorrect (not to mention ethically obnoxious). Last time I checked we were all living on one planet and it’s the only one we’ve got. Read the packaging in the supermarket – many brands of disposable nappies are made right here in Australia using Australian water and Australian resources.

The University of Queensland study looked at four environmental indicators: water resource depletion, non-renewable energy depletion, solid waste and land use for resource production. Not only did they find that the water usage between cotton nappies and disposable nappies was comparable, they also found that disposables used more energy and more land resources in their production and that disposables generate 20 times more solid waste. The assessment also stated a really interesting point: The only thing a disposable user can do to reduce their environmental impact is to use them less frequently* (not changing nappies frequently enough is the most common cause of nappy rash) but a cloth user has many choices to reduce their impact. Find a summary of the environmental comparison between cloth and disposable nappies by the University of Queensland here.

If a cloth user chooses nappies made of more sustainable fabrics such as bamboo or hemp (which use much less water in production than cotton) then the cloth nappy user immediately comes out ahead. The study also assumed that soiled nappies were soaked – so that amount can be taken out if you’re dry pailing like we recommend. If you use the same nappies for more than one child, you’re even further ahead.

But here’s the BIG idea… If water usage is a priority for you when making your decision about using cloth nappies, consider this: by choosing to use cloth, you will save several thousand dollars. Take that money and use it to install a water tank, a grey water system, solar hot water, or something else that will offset the resources you are using when you use cloth. You could make your cloth use carbon neutral! Cloth gives you so many more options when it comes to reducing your environmental impact. The money it saves can also let you do something BIG that will help reduce your family’s environmental impact well into the future. 


Kate O’Brien, Rachel Olive, Yu-Chieh Hsu, Luke Morris, Richard Bell and Nick Kendall
Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering, The University of Queensland, Brisbane 2009

*This is a trifle simplistic as there are disposable nappies available with better environmental credentials (try to find one that has been independently assessed) but they may be harder to source and are usually more expensive. But it is an option to consider if cloth isn't for you or if you'd like to use a combination of cloth and disposable nappies.

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