Wasteless Family #2 Nappy chat

Wasteless Family #2 Nappy chat

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If you’re anything like me – and if you’ve chosen to read this blog post then perhaps you are a little like me – you find environmental guilt one of the harder parenting guilts to handle; there’s no getting around it, raising children is a resource and energy intensive process. And, if we’re being honest, it can be really tough to incorporate sustainable habits into family life. Kid stuff is expensive, time and patience are both short, meaning that environmental commitments that once seemed obvious and simple – cooking from scratch, sourcing ethical products, supporting local shops – can feel almost impossibly complex and expensive.

I’ve got two small children and I wanted to share some of the ways I’ve found to limit our environmental footprint – and I want to be honest and realistic with you in the process; I’ve been suckered by too many smarmy blogs called things like ‘ten simple ways to raise eco-friendly kids’ that pretend to be on your side then say stuff like ‘just bake your own fresh sourdough every single day, it’s easy!’ No.  

So I wouldn’t blame you for one moment if you’ve ever thought about washable nappies but filed them away under ‘not in a million years’ or even ‘I’d love to but there’s no way I could make that work.’ I am here, as a fundamentally lazy person with a significant aversion to laundry and an average aversion to poo, to tell you that cloth nappies are one of the easiest and most effective changes you can make to reduce waste at home: is it time to change your nappies?

Why cloth?

Brace yourself, here come the nappy statistics: a single baby will use around 6,500 nappies. That’s 40 bin bags per baby per year. Eight million nappies are thrown away every day in the UK. We don’t know how long they take to break down but an absolute minimum figure is 500 years. As they degrade in landfill nappies release significant quantities of methane; one baby’s nappies add the same quantity of methane to the atmosphere as a car travelling 1,800 miles. I could go on, but I think you get the point.  

The alternative is washable nappies. When I (foolishly) mentioned to a couple of people that I planned to use washables once my first baby was born I was met with a mixture of disgust and horror but let me tell you – and I promise I’m being honest here, I’m not just trying to persuade you – it’s absolutely fine. I’ve now used washables for two kids and I would recommend them to anyone. Here’s how it works:

Washable nappies come in a bewildering variety of brands and styles: prepare to lose a few evenings to Google as you explore the jargon-rich world of the cloth nappy fanatic and get dragged, screaming, into a sinkhole of ‘limited edition’ prints and ridiculous items designed to make your baby’s arse look like an adorable fox.

Basically you choose between nappies that come in different sizes and nappies that can be adapted to grow with the child ‘from birth to potty’, known as ‘one-size-fits-all’ or OSFA nappies.

There are a few basic styles of nappy:

All in ones, where the absorbent bit is sewn into the waterproof bit.

Pocket nappies, where the absorbent bit tucks into a pocket inside the waterproof bit. These have always seemed like a faff to me, getting that pad into the pocket is like bum origami.

Two part nappies, where the waterproof wrap and absorbent cloth nappy are separate. I use these and I think that one of the benefits is that you can mix and match brands, making it easy to pick up second hand cheapies.

You can choose between microfibre, cotton, or bamboo; different fabrics are more sustainable to produce, others last longer or dry quicker.

Whatever the style, most nappies follow the same basic format: some combination of a liner to catch wee and poo, a booster or insert to absorb extra liquids, a soft cloth nappy, and a waterproof wrap to keep everything contained. Washables come with velcro or poppers, there’s no origami or safety pins involved.

You keep a lidded bucket, lined with a drawstring mesh bag, by your changing mat. A few drops of tea tree oil in the bottom of the bucket keeps it all smelling fresh. When it’s time for a nappy change you tip out the contents of the liner into the toilet then chuck everything in the bucket. Some people sluice the liner using the toilet flush (or the shower head if it stretches to the toilet).  

Once the bucket is full you take the mesh bag out and the whole thing goes straight in the washing machine with a half measure of washing up liquid, no fabric softener. We find that a 1 hour wash at 30 degrees does the trick (knock it up to 60 degrees after rotavirus vaccinations). There’s no soaking or boiling needed.

That’s it – it’s easy. It doesn’t smell (at least no more than a nappy bin full of disposables, and I think a bit less) and the amount of additional interaction with poo is very, very minimal. In fact, I’ve found that leaks and ‘explosions’ are far less common with washables.

How about cost?

In total I’ve spent £360 on washable nappies. Based on doing three loads of nappies each week and each washing cycle costing around 20p and detergent costing 10p that means I’ve spent £140 on laundry so far, so pretty much £500 in total.

Using these statistics on nappies used per age group I believe my two kids have had around 9,250 nappy changes between them so far. Urgh, that gives me a cold shudder. Lidl nappies are about 6p each so that’s £555. The posh ‘eco-friendly’ Naty nappies are about 15p each so £1,857.

These are totally back of the envelope calculations but at the very least we can see that washables are not some impossibly expensive luxury and should, hopefully, save you money (even if it’s only a few pence per nappy change). You can of course reduce the cost and  environmental impact of washables even further by buying secondhand. There’s a very active ‘cloth nappies for sale’ group on Facebook where you can find some decent bargains.

If washable nappies are so great why doesn’t everyone use them?

Well I think a lot of it is probably the psychological barrier of getting a bit more hands-on with poo. There’s also the issue of the cost being upfront rather than spread out but a number of nappy suppliers offer a payment plan which is helpful. Then there’s the extra laundry; don’t get me wrong, I’ll be chuffed when I don’t have to wash nappies anymore but it’s not hours of scrubbing and rinsing, and once we got used to it as part of our routine it has never been an issue.

One very small, slight annoyance is the fact that the nappies are bulkier than disposables so it’s harder to find trousers that fit – for babies that means lots of stretchy leggings, jogging bottoms, and harem pants. We’ve also found vest extenders really useful for getting more life out of vests that fit on top but won’t quite stretch over a cloth nappy.

If your baby is prone to nappy rash or has sensitive skin then it might take some experimentation to find a nappy fabric that is best for her skin (so buy just a couple of brands/ fabrics at first them add to your collection when you find out what works best for you). Washables don’t draw the moisture away from your baby’s skin in the same way disposables do so, when my daughter went through some really awful nappy rash, we had to put her in disposables for a few days at a time to help it heal.

What about when you’re out and about?

For shortish day trips where only a few nappies are needed then it’s pretty straightforward. Get yourself a double nappy bag with two compartments, one of which is waterproof, like this one. These are big enough to hold enough nappies for a day out plus a change of clothes, some wipes, and a travel changing mat. Any wet nappies go into their own little drawstring wet bag which keeps stinks and leaks contained until you get home.

If you’re out for longer than this, or carrying a lot of stuff, it can become trickier. We do revert to disposables for trips away of more than one night if we won’t be able to use a washing machine. One possible option is the ‘Flip’ nappy: these are washables with the option to use a disposable liner inside the cloth nappy, allowing you to keep the nappy itself dry and reuse it a bunch of times, while throwing away less that you would otherwise with a disposable. It’s a nice idea but they don’t really work – or perhaps I’m very bad at using them – and the disposable inserts can be difficult to get hold of.

How about nursery/ the childminder?

As long as you check first, and are happy to do a demo if they’re not familiar with the nappies you use, it’s unlikely to be a problem. The three nurseries our kids have been at have not batted an eyelid at changing cloth nappies, it’s even started a few conversations about how easy they are.

I’m squeamish about poo, what about flushable liners?

They do exist but whatever you do, don’t flush them! They’re generally made of cellulose or bamboo but they don’t break down in the sewers in the same way as toilet paper (regardless of what the manufacturers claim) and they’ll either block your drains or contribute to a nasty, grody old fatberg somewhere else in the sewer system. Washable liners are the way to go – if you don’t want to shell out for purpose made ones, or (like me) you’ve somehow lost a couple in the wash, an ikea fleece blanket cut into nappy sized strips works great.

What about wet wipes?

Washable wet wipes are so awesome, I can’t believe they’re not in everyone’s house – perhaps they will be once the wet wipe ban eventually comes into place. Apart from the reduced environmental impact, washable wet wipes are loads better for clean up and they save you an absolute fortune.   

Washable wet wipes are just little squares of cotton terry, bamboo, or microfibre cloth. Making your own would be very straightforward but you can buy bundles and kits. You just need a lidded tub filled with water and, if you’re feeling fancy, a few drops of baby-friendly essential oil. Keep a small quantity of baby wipes damp in the box for nappy changes at home or pack a few in a wet bag for taking out and about. They can go into your nappy bucket with your washable nappies.  

Ooh, I’m getting into this, what else can I wash?!

Loads of stuff. As well as wet wipes we keep a second set of washable cloths in the kitchen for cleaning hands and faces after meals. They’re a different colour so they don’t get mixed up or washed with the bum ones.

Washable breast pads made from bamboo are so much comfier than disposable ones, and less likely to slip around. Washable maternity pads and sanitary pads are pretty widely available now too. And have you seen this washable kitchen roll…

The good thing about choosing any reusable items is that it’s not all or nothing: if you’re not sure about nappies then start with cloth wet wipes. Or grab a few second hand nappies and start by just using them on Saturdays – even this small change would keep around 700 disposables out of landfill and you can gradually add more nappies to your collection as you get into the swing of things.

A final few tips:

One of the best things I ever bought was an old fashioned hanging clothes dryer. We don’t have loads of spare space for drying nappies and the Welsh weather is not on our side, so this thing is a big help.

Get yourself a socktopus. Or do you call it an octopants in your house? Either way I mean one of those things that looks like an octopus with pegs for hanging socks on. Actually get two or three sturdy stainless steel ones, they’re really useful for hanging nappies up to dry.

Get as much life out of your nappies as possible but following the washing instructions, and ALWAYS fold the velcro back on itself before washing to keep it sticky.

If you use a lot of nappy creams then your nappies will get a little less absorbent over time. This is easy to fix (or so I’m told – I’ve never found I needed to do it), you need to ‘strip’ the fabric to remove the oils that have built up, and there’s loads of instructions to be found online. And don’t forget, you can get nappy and barrier creams in glass jars to avoid plastic tubs and tubes.

If your nappies get a bit worn out then don’t chuck them. Some companies will replace the velcro, or swap it for poppers, or you can do this yourself if you’re handy. If not then this lovely lady in Bristol specialises in nappy repairs. A good dose of sunlight will bleach them nicely.  

When you no longer need your nappies (hooray!) then sell them on or donate them. If they’re too worn out to be used they could be cut up for cleaning clothes, or clean cloth nappies can go into the clothes recycling bank. I’ve heard of child care settings asking for them for use on dolls and teddies too!

Finally, I appreciate that I’ve mentioned a bunch of plastic products and items in this post, including microfibre nappies. If I was buying my nappies now I probably wouldn’t have gone for the microfibre ones due to the fibre shedding we now know is occurring and causing marine pollution. You can actually buy plastic free merino wool nappies covers; the issue here is that they’re super pricey – at least twice the price of the basic ones I use at around £18 each. I did actually acquire two of these as hand-me-downs but they simply weren’t waterproof. They looked really nice but within about ten minutes I had a damp baby smelling like pee and wet sheep.

The best we can do, as in other areas of our lives, is choose carefully, take care of the things we buy, and pass them on when we’re done.  

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