Which are the more eco friendly diapers – reusable or disposable? Choose from reusable diapers & liners made out of environmentally friendly materials or organic disposable diapers with more biodegradable materials in them to reduce the impact on the environment.
Environmentally conscious parents want to choose the best option for their children and the planet and that is no less true with choosing diapers than any other products. Here is our choice and some reasons why.
The most eco friendly diapers
The entire lifecycle of an eco friendly diaper affects how much environmental impact it has (UNEP – PDF). It includes the materials a product is made out of, the processes needed to manufacture it, the way it is used (or reused) and the way it is disposed of.
For example, a reusable diaper is only eco friendly if it is laundered in the right way. To do this, it needs to be washed:
- using minimal water,
- with a full load of washing,
- in a modern washing machine,
- on a low temperature,
- using eco-friendly detergent,
- ideally using green energy,
- and dried outdoors
‘Nappy as a Service’ schemes can be found across the globe from London to Melbourne, Brazil and New York and can actually provide the lowest impact of any eco friendly diapers. Washing nappies in bulk in efficient machines uses less energy and water. Using detergent rather than soap is more efficient, as soaps often contain palm oil, which is harmful to the environment.
Are there any 100% biodegradable nappies?
Unfortunately not. There are no 100% biodegradable nappies on the market, yet. There are a few manufacturers who are close though. Here are some of our favorite brands and the reasons why we like them.
Kit & Kin are the cute, UK based maker of eco friendly diapers or nappies if you are in the UK – the vast majority of their nappy materials are biodegradable, except the velcro tabs and the elastics in the leg cuffs. Their linings and cuffs are 100% sustainable, the absorbent core is made from FSC certified fluff pulp and bio-based SAP. The nappies are chlorine free and free from phthalates. They are produced in a carbon neutral plant, are sold in 100% biodegradable packaging and the company invests in rainforests.
SAPs or super absorbent polymers have been at the core of the diaper waste issue for years. They can absorb up to 500 times their weight in fluid but they do not biodegrade and have a huge impact in landfill (Wiley). Also, the use of sodium polyacrylate in standard nappies is harmful. It contains acrylamide & acrylic acid. Acrylamide is carcinogenic (when ingested) and acrylic acid is a skin and eye irritant. Bleached pulp used in nappies contains chlorine, which is toxic and can irritate (EWG).
Ecoriginals are 90% biodegradable and they are aiming to be 100% biodegradable by 2023. That might not help you if you have a newborn or toddler right now, but they still do a great job of making eco friendly diapers! The Australian based company makes nappies with plant based inners & outers, and filled with sustainably sourced wood pulp, tissue paper, plant based polymers and plant based glue. The only non-biodegradable areas are the tabs and the leg cuffs. The nappies are dermatologist approved and are free from toxins in dyes, bleaches and fragrances.
The top sheet and back sheet in standard nappies are made of plastic polymers like polypropylene and polyethylene. These are the sections that are in contact with your baby’s skin Phthalates are added to plastics in nappies to make them more flexible. The trouble is, phthalates are harmful to the endocrine and hormone systems. Plastic and adhesives also emit VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) as gasses that can be inhaled and cause irritation to the throat and lungs or long term damage to the body.
Cheeky Panda eco friendly diapers are ‘made with nothing but bamboo and a dash of aloe for skin nourishment’. That makes them sustainable as bamboo and aloe vera are sustainable resources and the bamboo is FSC certified. Unfortunately, they are packaged in plastic but it is recycled and recyclable. They are free from chlorine bleach and dermatologically tested.
Every minute around the world over 300,000 disposable nappies* enter landfills, incineration or pollute the environment, including our oceansEllen MacArthur Foundation (BBIA – PDF)
Biodegradable or compostable nappies are only part of the picture, as your local waste service provider or council will need to have a means to deal with the volume of nappies that are discarded every day. One solution to this is a nappy pickup or recycling service. A service like this operates in Calgary, Canada called Soiled Diapers. They offer pickups each week, fortnight or month and a speedy service. Their specialized composting equipment can break down any brand of disposable diaper within two weeks. They filter out any plastic and recycle it.
Which begs the question, why are UK residents told not to bin nappies and why can’t council recycling centers do the same? Answers on a postcard please.
Reusable or disposable diapers?
Sustainable material use is important for nappies, whether they are single-use or reusable nappies. Reusable diapers are often made from cotton and cotton is not always organic or sustainably produced. Cotton that is not organic is the third most treated crop with pesticides in the U.S. (OTA – PDF). Pesticides are toxic and are known carcinogens. Cotton is also bleached to give it that lovely white color. Make sure the cotton in your reusable nappies is unbleached and organic.
Kit & Kin also make all in one reusable nappies with fun animal designs. The nappies are made from 100% recycled polyester, each nappy saves two plastic bottles from landfill. The lining is tencel, made from Australian eucalyptus trees and hemp, making it natural and absorbent. The nappies are closed with hook & loop tapes and adjustable with poppers to make them one size.
The most economical and eco friendly diapers are simple terry squares. Parents have been using cotton terry squares for decades. Yes, they require some upkeep but they are still the simplest way to be sustainable. Terry squares are now available in bamboo as well as cotton. Bamboo has a softer feel even after washing, whereas cotton does feel a bit rougher after a few washes we find. Double up the diaper for nighttimes. Remember to use unbleached organic cotton and responsibly sourced bamboo. Check the addition of chemicals or perfumes.
Gerber sells organic birdseye cotton terry squares for use as nappies and Kanga Care makes flat diapers in bamboo and cotton, both available on Amazon and in Target. In the UK Bright Bots supply bamboo or cotton terry nappies. We think terry squares might just take the lead as the best eco friendly diapers.
A key difference between reusable and single-use nappy systems is that the consumer has significantly more control over the environmental impacts of reusable nappies than they do of single-use nappies.UN Environment Programme, Single Use Nappies and their alternatives – PDF
Best eco friendly diapers
Parents can choose between a reusable or a sustainable disposable diaper. Choose reusable diapers made of safe and sustainable materials. Using reusables gives the most choice about material, use & washing and what happens to it after use. Recycle it or pass it onto the next child.
The second best option is a disposable diaper made from as much biodegradable material as possible. Choose disposable diapers with natural materials, that have been sustainably sourced. Check they are chemical free.
That’s our round up of the best eco friendly diapers available to buy. Do you have a favorite?