Nappies…they are a part of everyday life for parents and anyone working in the early childhood industry. On average, children use 5000-6000 single-use nappies before becoming toilet trained!
This blog post will explore some key things to consider if you are looking to reduce or eliminate disposable nappy waste at your early childhood service, or if you are a parent wanting to encourage cloth at your child’s service.
Save money and the environment
Like any other single-use plastic product, the energy needed to produce disposable nappies (that are used so briefly before becoming part of landfill), is unsustainable. Most plastic products break up into smaller pieces of plastic; they don’t break down as they don’t decompose well in landfill. Disposable nappies can take around 500 years to break up in landfill, meaning that every single disposable nappy that was ever used, is still sitting in landfill today.
Some councils estimate between 10-25% of their waste is disposable nappies. Councils are beginning to try to tackle this issue through subsidising cloth nappies for households. Hopefully we will see this offered for early childhood services as well soon. Many Councils also offer cloth nappy workshops to help build parents and early childhood educators’ confidence in using reusables. If you can’t switch to using 100% cloth nappies, every little bit counts, even if you start with using one cloth nappy a day!
Let’s talk reusable nappies
Remember the days of Terry Towelling nappies with big safety pins to hold them together? The use of these nappies fell out of fashion over the 70’s and 80’s as disposables became popular. But plenty of people still use ‘terries’ and find them the most simple system to use. Coburg Children’s Centre in Melbourne have a successful routine using Terry Towelling cloth for their children in nappies since the Centre opened in the 70’s. Michelle, the Centre Educational Coordinator, shared that they have never considered disposables. “It just wasn’t part of our sustainability philosophy,” she said. They use Terry Towelling squares with Baby BeeHinds covers. They send their terries offsite to a commercial laundry service to be cleaned and wash the covers at the centre.
Nowadays, you will find plenty of other options on top of terries that some say are just as easy as a disposable. Modern cloth nappies (MCN’s) come in all shapes and sizes and there is something for everyone. The main types of nappies with built in covers are pockets, all-in ones and all-in twos. Pocket nappies and all-in twos come with removable inserts made from absorbent fabric like bamboo, hemp or microfibre, for easy washing and drying. In all-in-ones, the absorbent fabric is attached to the nappy cover which means no separate parts and no putting together the nappies when they are dry. They just take a little longer to dry! There are also separate nappy and cover systems including flats (a traditional style of nappy), prefolds (a flat nappy with an absorbent panel in the center) and fitted (the folding has all been done for you). Adding a cover to each of these options makes them waterproof.
Most MCN’s come with snaps which allow you to adjust the nappy to the size of the child as they grow. Which means you don’t have to continue buying more! Velcro is also an option, and many parents and early childhood educators say these are just as easy to use as a disposable nappy.
Pros, cons and busting myths
Let’s start with the costs. If using MCN’s, a set of 24 nappies should be enough for one child from birth through to toilet training. There is an initial outlay cost to prepare for using reusable nappies, but in the long run, these costs thousands of dollars less than disposable nappies. MCN’s retail from between $8 at the cheaper end, to $35-$40 for the higher quality brands. Most early childcare centres should be able to access wholesale or heavily discounted prices if buying in bulk and good quality nappies will last years if they are being looked after properly. South Australian based cloth nappy company, Baby Beehinds, offers wholesale nappies to early childhood services and can support you in the implementation of your systems too! If the initial investment in cloth nappies seems out of reach, there are many second hand MCN’s available through networks and online platforms.
There is also the cost to wash them (including the cost of your time) and the cost for using resources like water and energy. Practice makes perfect, so once you get into a rhythm with washing the cloth nappies, your time spent in the laundry will reduce. Gone are the days of soaking your nappies for hours – these days it’s recommended to do a quick pre-hot wash (nappies only) followed by a longer hot wash mixed with your other washing (for the most in-depth science-backed washing info, head to Clean Cloth Nappies). If you decide to outsource your washing, shop around and negotiate. Find out if the laundry uses renewable energy or recycled water systems to lessen the environmental impact. If you are interested in a comparison between the environmental costs of cloth nappies vs disposables – the Australian Nappy Association has some great info.
Some people say cloth nappies increase the chance of nappy rash. From experience, we don’t believe this to be true. Nappy rash varies from child to child and depends on how often the nappies are being changed. Changing nappies regularly (every 2-3 hours) will reduce the chance of nappy rash. You can still use barrier cream if you are washing the nappies thoroughly and if it’s still an issue, try switching fabrics or detergents to see if that reduces the reaction.
Some possible disadvantages to using cloth are:
- Babies can’t sit in soiled nappies as long because the cloth isn’t as good at sucking away the moisture as the plastic. Most decent nappies should hold at least 2-hours’ worth of pee.
- When you’re out and about you need to carry a wet bag for dirty nappies rather than dropping them in a bin.
- Cloth nappies are bulkier and this needs to be factored in when fitting clothes over them.
You will need to consider your changing and storage systems for cloth nappies to make sure the system works for you. Where will you store nappies before they get washed? What happens when the nappy bin gets full? How will you store clean nappies in the change area? How will you manage solids and disposing of this into the toilet?
Palmwoods Early Learning Centre have opted to provide nappies themselves and even have their own brand and style on their nappies! Director Anita Nolan is passionate about cloth nappies. “It’s so easy and it’s just a no-brainer for us…we would never go back to disposables.” Legislation prevented them from laundering their own nappies, so they went on the hunt for a local laundry partner. Initially, the price was too prohibitive; however, after a few successful negotiations with the laundry, the costs became attainable. They promote their partnership with the laundry to their families, resulting in more customers for the laundry and a win-win for everyone.
They use bamboo liners in the nappies to make disposing of solids easy (liners come back from the laundry already put back in which saves centre staff time). They store clean nappies in an accessible cupboard under the change station in each playroom. Liners and their contents are disposed of in a regular lidded nappy bin and the used nappies are placed in lined nappy buckets with a reusable/ washable wet bag. When full, these are stored in the centre laundry until collected daily by the laundry service. Children at the centre get sent home at the end of the day in a disposable unless the parent also uses cloth at home and supplies a fresh one to go home in.
Both Michelle (Coburg Children’s Centre) and Anita (Palmwoods ELC) believe it’s important to still ensure parents who want their children in a disposable nappy, for whatever reason, are supported and never made to feel judged. They both see the use of cloth by parents at home increasing slowly and most parents are completely on-board with their systems, regardless of what nappy system they use at home. “We show parents our nappies and changing system when they do tours, so they know what to expect,” says Michelle and Anita.
There are many different ways to go cloth and reduce disposable nappy waste; it’s simply a matter of finding what works for you and giving it a go.
Cloth nappy workshops in Australia- Australian Nappy Association