‘To wash or not to wash’ and cloth nappies

The recent announcement about water restrictions in southern and eastern England made us sit up and have a rethink. We’d always thought that landfill was the biggest environmental issue we faced and therefore using cloth nappies was the better alternative. (We know that a lot of our waste is incinerated but that just added to our arguments to not bother with eco-disposables.) Yet, with current plans to restrict water to around 23 million English households (and possibly be extended to further north as the summer actually kicks in), the issue of water usage and washing cloth nappies have made us relook at the facts.  Should we stop washing cloth nappies and switch to disposables?

Conserving water, even in non-drought circumstances, should be something we all try to incorporate into our daily life. Some water-saving efforts we introduced into our own household about three years ago (courtesy of a Thames Water water conservation home visit [no longer available but if you are a Thames Water customer you can also get many similar devices for free]) included adding crystals to our toilet reservoir to reduce water used per flush, tap inserts which aerate the water as it comes through the tap to achieve the same flow rate but with less water, water-saving showerheads and shower timers. We’re still working on the last one but the others were easy installs with instant and non-detrimental results.

Our research then led us to some Australian websites and forums with great information about water usage, washing in general and washing cloth nappies which we’d like to share. (We come from Australia where water restrictions have always been a part of life, especially in the summer, although less so recently as seen by extensive flooding in the country.)

Some facts (source uSwitch website, see link below):

  • An average person uses about 150L of water per day.
  • A full toilet flush uses about 8L of water.
  • An average shower uses 80L (as does the average bath).
  •  A washing machine uses about 65L of water (less if high performance but then these machines often don’t use enough water to get cloth nappies clean).
  • A dishwasher uses around 25L of water.
  • Watering the garden with a hosepipe uses around 540L of water.
  • Washing the car with a hosepipe uses up to 480L of water.

Using the above figures and thinking about our particular circumstances, we think there are ways we can continue to use and wash cloth nappies and actually reduce our water usage overall.

Some suggestions:

  • The advice is to always wash a full load of laundry so, if you don’t already, consider washing cloth nappies with your own clothes.
  • Buy more cloth nappies so you don’t need to wash as often.*
  • Consider using a laundry service where more nappies are washed at once
  • Offset water usage by
    • Having shorter showers or installing water -saving showerheads
    • Get a water butt to collect rainwater and use for watering garden, etc
    • Conserve the grey water from showers and washing machines** to water gardens, or, fill up your toilet reservoir to use as flushing water***
    • Consider getting a half-flush toilet or only flushing after a certain number of wees

It’s hard not to think: ‘Why bother, let’s just switch to disposables and not have to deal with it, especially as we don’t have a car to wash nor a garden to water, so we’re already doing well, right?’.  Well we suppose it depends in your priorities, but what most people seem to forget is the amount of water (and oil but we’ll leave that debate for another time) used to make a disposable nappy.  And we have no influence on that part of the manufacturing.

There have been two reports in the UK on the lifecycle assessment of disposable and reusable cloth nappies and also one study by the University of Queensland in Australia. The Australian study states that ‘More than 90% of water and energy consumption and land use occurs during the pre-use stage of the disposable nappy life cycle (softwood production, pulping and nappy production)’ whereas reusable nappies users can mitigate how much water and energy they use by limiting impacts with washing and drying and reusing nappies on more than one child.

Of course, this is what we’d say, but what do you think? Will you keep washing cloth nappies when the water restrictions start on 5 April? Will you reconsider using a laundry service? Will you switch to disposables and ride it out?

* Not our suggestion, honest, as found on a forum post! J

** Grey water from washing soiled nappies is not recommended for use on gardens.

*** This suggestion is slightly too hardcore for us (even if we were brought up with a drop toilet [ie sawdust, no flush!] ) but worth passing on.

Links for further reading:

Hosepipe ban to be introduced into the UK  (BBC News)

Q&A: Hosepipes, drought and you (BBC Q&A)

How much water do you use? (uSwitch)

Does the water use argument wash? (Darlings Downunder blog)

Great Water Usage Debate (Cloth Nappies are Fun blog)

An Updated Lifecycle Assessment Study for Disposable and Reusable Nappies (UK, October 2008)

Lifecycle Assessment: Reusable and Disposable Nappies in Australia  (July 09)

The LCA Answer to your Nappy Nuisance (Edge Environment Aus)

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4 responses to “‘To wash or not to wash’ and cloth nappies

  1. Cloth nappy users could consider using an Eco Egg to wash their nappies. Due to not using detergent, the rinse cycle can be cut out therefore saving water. I’ve had good success using an Eco Egg for both nappies and clothes, and. they are better for the environment compared to detergent.

  2. Very interesting, Julia, thanks for the comment! Not heard of Eco Egg but we are about to get soap nuts in the shop as we know these are a good alternative to detergent – still need the rinse cycle though! We also stock Aquaballs but again we still recommend the rinse cycle to rinse away the dirt.

  3. Here’s a really interesting forum with lots of real experience on how to save water and electricity when washing nappies http://www.pregnancyforum.org.uk/showthread.php/13607-How-we-wash-our-cloth-nappies…?s=7eaabfeeea14a286c52ed2a1f22ba123

  4. Thanks for such a compelling article. The points you have made regarding water usage is quite amazing, as I always thought having a shower would use less water.
    I agree with you about using the grey water. That is a bit too hardcore.

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