World Earth Day: The great nappy debate

In celebration of World Earth Day on 22 April and Real Nappy Week on 24-30 April, Katerina Adams explores that common debate that many parents face – reusable vs. disposable nappies…

When other mums catch a glimpse of my baby’s cloth nappy, they respond in one of two ways. Either they call me ‘Supermum’ and pat me on the back, or they raise an eyebrow and say, ‘Rather you than me!’

This sums up life as a professional nappy recycler. On the plus side, people admire you. On the minus side, they also tend to think you’re a little bit weird. After all, to many right-thinking people, the idea that any time-poor mother might choose to adopt a poo-disposal technology that has in theory been rendered obsolete by the invention of Pampers seems bizarre and ludicrous. Insane, even.

Yet here’s the thing: these people are wrong. I speak as a mother of three children who are under the age of six, the youngest of whom, Henry, is a four-month-old baby. I’ve been using cloth nappies on a constant basis since 2010 and, well, they’re brilliant: easier to use than you might think, better for your child’s precious bottom and capable of giving you a warm glow of pride.

TotsBots is one of Katerina’s favourite brands

So, what are cloth nappies, and what’s the point of them?
The ‘normal’ nappy, by which I mean the sort you’ll find in every supermarket or pharmacy, is a throwaway product: you pop it on, your baby fills it up, and then you throw it in the bin. After that, it goes to landfill, where – usually being made from products that are not biodegradable – it will take several hundred years to rot.

The cloth nappy is, by contrast, recyclable. When it gets dirty, you take it off, wash it and use it all over again. A good one can last for years. As a result, they’re far better for the planet than the wasteful disposable type.

So far, so straightforward. But saving the planet is not the only reason to ‘go cloth’. Far from it. In my book, there are two other good reasons to use these rather fetching products. Firstly, they look pretty, and cotton interiors are kinder to your cherub’s backside than paper, particularly when it gets a bit damp. Secondly, they save you money.

I first realised these pertinent facts in June 2010, when my eldest child, William, came into the world. At the time, I called nappies “diapers” because I was temporarily living in California, where my husband had been posted for work. Here, in the birthplace of the hippy movement, reusable nappies were all the rage – and some of my eco-conscious, yummy “mommy” friends managed to persuade me to give cloth a whirl.
We duly did what locals call the “math”. Using disposable nappies would, we worked out, cost around $750 per year, the equivalent of £500. Presuming William would take two-and-a-half years to potty train, we were looking at a total spend of £1,250. More if he wasn’t an early adopter of the toilet.

Cloth nappies, by contrast, required just one initial investment: around $300 to buy 20 nappies and a few bucks more for an air-tight container to stick them in when they got wet.Even including the cost of running a washing machine a couple of extra times per week, this represented a substantial saving. As someone who loves a bargain, I was sold, particularly when I saw the gorgeous designs of some of the top US brands (Bum Genius and Fuzzibunz were my favourites).

A couple of years later, with a second baby, Megan, under my belt, we returned to London. Here, we live in a flat, rather than a house, with no sun-drenched garden to hang a washing line. But I decided to plough on with cloth nonetheless. And I’m glad I did. Using them in the UK turned out to be far easier than I expected. I remain a convert.

So if you fancy going over to the cloth side, here’s some advice:
Firstly, you don’t have to completely renounce paper. Instead, to see if cloth nappies might work for you, try buying two or three and using them as an occasional alternative. If you get on with them, like I do, then you can go the whole hog. Secondly, bear in mind that the velcro tabs which fasten cloth nappies do occasionally need replacing, as can the elastic. To avoid having to reach for your sewing kit too often, be sure to pay proper attention to the washing instructions.