The environmental impact of both disposable and re-usable towel nappies is very large, considering the number of nappies that are cleaned or dumped per day world-wide. Parents worry about the relative toxicity of disposable nappies – the absorption gels and bleaching agents used in manufacturing – and the fact that the disposable nappies are non-biodegradable when dumped in landfill sites.
Concerns over the health factors of wearing disposable nappies centre around your baby having 24 hour skin exposure to the inner lining of the nappy. Because the nappies stay drier to the touch – due to moisture being absorbed away from the surface - parents tend to leave nappies on longer. With cloth or towel nappies, wetness is immediately apparent and exposure to dirt and germs is limited because those nappies are changed quickly. Disposable nappies should be changed every two to three hours, regardless of how dry they may appear to be.
The harmful “volatile organic compounds” (VOC's) that your child could be exposed to from disposable nappies include toluene, ethylbenzene, dipentene and xylene. All of these chemicals have toxic properties and have been linked to cancer and brain damage; this is from long-term, high-level exposure. This does not mean that your child will get sick, but that there is a slight chance that the chemicals will have an effect.
In a laboratory study, it has been determined that mice experience more airway irritation from disposable nappies than from cloth nappy emissions. Repeated exposures brought on more intense symptoms. The end results of irritated airways are 'asthma-like' reactions. There are even calls for studies to be done that link asthma and disposable nappy emissions. Bear in mind that babies breathe more air than adults do, in proportion to their body weight. This means that air pollutants affect babies more than adults. Cloth nappies are proven to have less harmful emissions, as does one particular brand of disposable nappy used in the study.
Disposable nappies draw moisture inside via the gel filling made mainly of sodium polyacrylate. This substance is known to cause respiratory and skin irritations in circumstances where the exposure is above that of normal use. Certain 'super absorbent' gels cause little or no irritation. In the past, nappies had the same super absorbent filling as tampons which have been linked to toxic shock syndrome. It is no longer the case with more modern nappies.
A study done in Germany found that baby boys who wore disposable nappies had a higher average scrotal temperature than their counterparts wearing cloth nappies. While higher scrotal temperature is linked to infertility in adult males, the effect long-term effect on baby boys in unknown.
Dioxin is a carcinogenic by-product of the chlorine-bleaching process. Almost all nappies, cloth and disposable, are bleached in this manner and have trace amounts of dioxine present. Parents do worry about the effects of dioxine on the genitals, since the nappies come into contact with these by default. As of yet, no studies have achieved conclusive findings over these trace amounts of dioxine in nappies.
Disposable nappies use up a massive amount of natural resources: 1.3 million tonnes of wood pulp and petroleum for the plastics is used up in disposable nappy manufacturing. Both disposable and cloth nappies use up water and energy in the manufacturing process and cloth nappies use more even resources when cleaned.
Disposable nappy manufacturers often point out that cloth nappies use up the more resources and energy when made and cleaned, and that cloth nappies require as much water per cleaning as six flushes of a normal toilet. Nappy cleaning services – where available – clean cloth nappies at high volume and are therefore more energy and water efficient than cleaning them at home. The general trend, however, has been for parents to use disposable nappies, mainly because of the convenience.
Pollution related to both kinds of nappies affects the environment in different ways. Cloth nappies are made of cotton. Growing cotton requires the use of pesticides; in fact cotton needs more pesticide than any other crop. Farmers are migrating towards using genetically engineered cotton. While this has little or no direct impact on your baby, there may be harmful long-term effects on the environment. Cotton nappies have a negative effect on the environment when produced and when they are cleaned. The cleaning process for cloth nappies, and bleaching process of both cloth and disposable nappies, produces dioxins. These dioxins are carcinogenic and stay in the waterways and sewerage systems for a very long time. Dioxin affects the reproductive systems of wildlife. Any dioxin that finds its way into humans and animals builds up in body tissue. People are in contact with dioxin via food that has been exposed to pollution containing dioxin. Polluted groundwater used for irrigation, is an example of how dioxin can affect crops. Waste water from the production of wood pulp and plastic – used in disposable nappy making – contains solvents, heavy metals and sludge.
Convenience and time saving are the main reasons parents choose disposable nappies over cloth nappies. Even with cleaning taken into account, the right quality cloth nappy is cheaper than a disposable nappy. If the cotton is organically grown, the overall impact on the environment is less than that of disposable nappy production. If time is worth money to you, you can opt for using disposable nappy liners, so that the cloth nappies do not need special soaking before washing. These nappy liners are also available as biodegradable products.
Some companies tend to stretch the truth as far as being “green” goes. It is up to you, the consumer, to do research and make an educated choice before buying. In the future, there may well be effective methods of disposable nappy recycling; already there is a company in California that claims success at this. If this method of recycling eventually becomes available in most countries, it will probably involve using separate bins for soiled nappies.