My wife and I had our gorgeous baby son (Xavier) at the end of May. Whilst neither of us are hardened environmentalists, we have always tried to reduce waste where possible… which is tricky with a newborn baby! After all, babies go through a lot of nappies, wet wipes and cotton wool and clothes. Plus raising a newborn baby is hard (albeit very rewarding!): babies seem to sleep when you want them to be awake, and be awake when you want them to sleep! The (very) early days also revolves around having the same routine every 2-3 hours – day and night. Needless to say, this can be exhausting and so it’s easy to use lots of disposable, single-use items (such as nappies and wet wipes) without really thinking about it, generating loads of landfil waste in the process.
We have certainly used lots of single-use items whilst raising Xavier, but we’ve recently started to reduce our household’s waste slowly but surely. Hence I thought I’d write up some tips and random thoughts in this post.
Note: our son ended up becoming a ‘big drinker’ (of water, not alcohol!), and we ended up having too many leakages with reusable nappies. As a result we went back to disposal ones – whoops! – but I’ll leave this section here as it might contain helpful information for other people.
Nappies are a massive source of baby-related waste. Not only are they big and bulky (relative to other waste items), you can easily go through 10+ in a day. Heck, a bad nappy change might involve using up three nappies! A BBC article from 2018 said that the UK throws out three billion nappies every year, equivalent to around 2-3% of all household waste. That’s a fair amount considering that the majority of households won’t be generating any nappy waste at all! Standard disposable/single use nappies are not recyclable so the only options are sending them to landfill (obviously bad) or burning them (which sounds practical, until you realise that this generates various greenhouse gases).
Aside from perceived convenience, the obvious benefit of disposable nappies is price: Aldi’s Mamia Newborn Size 1 nappies are just 3.1 pence each. Larger Mamia nappies will then be 4-6 pence each, but this is still substantially cheaper than some biodegradable nappies which are 20-40 pence each. The average baby will use around 5,000 nappies until they are potty trained, meaning that Aldi’s Mamia nappies might come to £225 (at an average of 4.5p each), compared to biodegradable nappies which come to £1,500 (at an average of 30p each). Money will naturally be tight after having a baby, so you can understand why single use nappies are so prevalent.
The alternative to single use or biodegradable nappies are real, cloth nappies (also called reusable nappies) – which is what we recently went for. There’s loads of different types, but we went with ‘birth to potty’ ones which allow you to alter the fit around your baby as they grow. In terms of price, you can pay anything from £4.90 per nappy on Amazon to £22.50 for the Bare & Boho V2. We went with the £4.90/each ones and haven’t had any issues. You could probably get by with 16-18 reusable nappies (allowing you to use 8-9 nappies per day, whilst washing and drying the other batch): and paying less than £100 for this is a fair bit cheaper in the long run than paying around £225 for disposable nappies.
In terms of how they work, the nappy itself has a space where a ‘nappy insert’ (usually made from bamboo or hemp) can go into and it’s this insert which absorbs liquids. There’s then an optional (but recommended) nappy liner you can buy and use which makes it easier to clean up soiled nappies:
The nappy itself is cleverly designed and it has lots of poppers on the outside, which allows for the size of the nappy to be changed as your baby grows – saving money (and waste) by not having to constantly buy new reusable nappies:
There is the odd ‘leakage’ with reusable nappies, although we have also had leakages fairly frequently with Lidl’s nappies as well so I don’t think this is necessarily an issue of cloth nappies.
It’s important to note that we still use single use nappies too, though. The inserts (which collect the pee) can only hold a certain amount, meaning that real nappies should be changed every 2-3 hours. This is fine when your child is very young and is feeding that frequently, but reusable nappies don’t make as much sense when babies start sleeping for 6+ hours through the night. No-one wants to set an alarm to wake up in the middle of the night simply to change a nappy (and wake up your peacefully sleeping baby)! There are ways around this, but for an extra cost (and hassle) so in this case, we prefer pragmatism and just use a disposable nappy. Equally if we are going out for the day, we tend to stick with disposable nappies for similar reasons.
Other Nappy-Related Waste
Beyond the nappies themselves, changing the nappy can generate other waste too:
- Plastic nappy bags to put the nappy waste in (and help reduce the smells: councils only pick up the waste once a fortnight, after all!)
- Wet wipes.
- Cotton wool.
As you can probably guess, the majority of these items (from the most popular supermarkets) are not recyclable nor biodegradable. Biodegradable options do exist, usually at a greater cost but sometimes the price is comparable to the disposable option. Different options include:
- Boots Biodegradable baby wipes are a bit more expensive than Aldi Mamia wipes in general, but you can sometimes get offers and extra points off which make the price fairly even.
- Use biodegradable nappy bags, which can be 3x more expensive (unfortunately) than standard nappy bags (£1.50 per 100 bags compared to 50p or less), but you only really need to use them to dirty nappy waste so a typical pack of 100 nappy bags should last well over a month.
- Get a nappy bin instead of using nappy bags, and then you only need to use a single bin liner instead of lots of smaller nappy bags. Of course, nappy bins only hold a certain amount so you won’t be able to just go through one bin bag per fortnight.
- You could use wash clothes instead of wet wipes, saving further on the need for buying even biodegradable baby wipes. Buy a few and they can be washed alongside the reusable nappies.
- Cotton wool is useful for drying off your baby’s skin before putting the nappy on (which is important for reducing nappy rash). However an alternative to this is to use flannels/small towels.
Some councils and other websites have some other good advice for reducing baby-related waste, although a few other tips/thoughts which are worth mentioning are:
- Through all the items you will inevitably buy for your baby, you will end up with lots of plastic wrapping and bags. These are usually not recyclable at the kerb side, but RecycleNow have a useful page for how they can be recycled. The short is that many supermarkets have schemes to accept and recycle these: “As a general rule, if you can stretch the film then it can be recycled.”.
- Making your own pureed and solid baby food (when your baby is ready to move off just having milk) will naturally cut down on the various food wrappers of baby food overall (even though some fruit and veg come in plastic wrappers, too).
- Second hand clothes and toys can be a good idea: babies need so many clothes and toys (but then grow out of them so quickly) that there’s loads of second hand clothes and toys on local baby groups, Gumtree and Facebook marketplace. Avoid second hand car seats, though, unless you completely trust the source because safety comes first in this case.
- Family will tend to buy lots of toys for babies, which is generous and appreciated however sometimes less is more. Throwing out dozens of barely used toys each year is never a good feeling, but unless you live in a mansion this will be the reality. Hence it can be better to speak to family members and ask for money or other baby-related items that you need instead.
I hope the advice in this post will prove useful. I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to cutting down on baby waste: I have been fairly skeptical of reusable nappies and more-expensive baby wipes and bags, but I’m glad that my wife has explored these options more because they are practical options and they don’t have to be insanely expensive. Indeed, reusable nappies can often come in at more than half the price of disposable nappies in the long run (under £100 for 20 reusable nappies, compared to £225+ for disposable nappies).
It’s important to be pragmatic too, though. I don’t feel guilty for still using the odd disposable nappy: for me it’s more a case of slowly but surely reducing our baby waste. Storage space is also a big issue for many people – unless you have a spare cupboard and space in the garage, buying biodegradable items on bulk (to bring down the cost of buying them) may not be practical.