Reusable v disposable nappies - which is better?

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What makes the perfect nappy? For most parents it’s a balance of performance, convenience, price and, increasingly, the impact nappies have on the planet.

But because there are so many choices available, selecting the right nappy line can become a bit of a minefield.

Before we look at what’s available and how they affect baby, planet and purse, let’s have a quick look at how the humble nappy has evolved…

A wee bit of history

1950s woman and baby

Figuring out the best way to deal with babies’ deposits is not only a modern-day challenge. The earliest nappies were concocted from animal skins and assorted plant components such as moss! As we evolved, so did nappies, and large pieces of cloth, folded into squares and secured with safety pins were used by parents.

These had to be scrupulously washed before being reused and it’s no wonder that after the Second World War, when more women entered the workplace, there was a strong whiff of change. It was clear that a less labour intensive nappy was needed.

Several developments and innovations ensued, but the biggest breakthrough was the disposable nappy. From the 1960s onwards, disposables were made widely available and gradually became the norm for busy parents.

However, in the 1990s, a dirtier side of disposables was revealed, with the realisation that used nappies were piling up in landfill and could take hundreds of years to degrade. With 3 billion disposable nappies used annually in the UK alone, we’d created one dirty mess for the environment.

This caused eco conscious parents to return to reusables.

Reusables today

Also called washable, cloth or real nappies, reusables can be “flat” or “shaped”. They come in lots of different varieties. Shaped nappies usually have an elasticated waist and leg cuffs and can be fastened with poppers or Velcro. They can be all in one nappies, or feature separate washable parts. 

Like the early versions, flat nappies involve a piece of fabric (squares or pre-folded fabric), but these days they are usually fastened on with a nappy grip rather than pins.

Reusables normally need to be washed at a temperature of 60 degrees to ensure they are hygienic, before they can be reused.

Disposables today

Due to disposable nappies causing an environmental stink, a new breed of disposable was born in the noughties – the sustainable or eco nappy.

Brands like Pura now offer disposable nappies that have been made using more sustainable materials, green energy and recyclable packaging.


There’s normally a higher start-up cost with reusable nappies, as you’ll need to fork out for the kit initially. But the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) calculates that reusable nappies can save you around £200 to £500 over the years that your baby is in nappies (normally two and a half years).

The cost of disposables can be lessened by buying in bulk and joining a subscription plan like Pura’s, which offers free, next day delivery and nappies from just 12.8p per nappy. 


mummy and babe

Reusable nappies are often less absorbent than disposables, so, again according to NCT advice, you’ll be changing them more frequently.

In contrast, many disposable nappies offer leak-free technology (Pura’s larger sizes offer up to 12 hours protection) and have innovative features such as wetness indicators.

When it comes to being skin safe, using both cloth nappies, and disposables that are free from chemical nasties such as chlorine, perfume, lotion and latex, should keep your baby’s delicate skin safe. You can also look for nappies that are Allergy UK approved, plus dermatologically and clinically tested, like Pura’s range.


There’s no doubt that disposable nappies offer the ultimate in convenience. As well as the obvious – frequent laundry and changes – reusables can be tricky to fit under baby cloths (depending on the design and size). Then there’s the question of how to manage when you’re abroad or on holiday.

Environmental impact

Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty – sadly, no nappy offers 100% performance along with zero impact on the planet. Yet!

Because there’s no getting away from the fact that disposable nappies are essentially single use plastic and can cause problems for the planet as they pile up in landfill, some people staunchly believe that reusable nappies are the best choice for the planet.

Yet to assess the environmental impact of both reusable and disposable nappies, we must look at the wider picture. 

As previously highlighted, there have been significant improvements aimed at making disposable nappies eco-friendlier since 2000.

According to government data, between 2001/02 and 2006, the disposable nappy industry reduced manufacturing energy requirements and achieved a 13.5% weight reduction in the average disposable nappy.

This has reduced the global warming impact resulting from disposable nappy use by around 12%. Read more here. 

The report also looked at the global warming impact of both disposable and reusable nappy usage over two and a half years. Disposables resulted in a of approximately 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents. Over the same timeframe the global warming impact of reusables was approximately 570kg of carbon dioxide equivalents.

When it comes to water usage, the government's estimates show that if all children used reusable nappies, it would add 1% to direct household water consumption across the UK each year.

So, which is better for the planet? This report by the Environment Agency suggests that there’s actually no significant difference between the environmental impacts of the disposable and reusable (both home laundered flat cloth nappies and commercially laundered prefolded cloth nappies delivered to the home)!

Their study measured aspects such as global warming, ozone depletion, summer smog formation, exhaustion of non-renewable reserves and nutrient water pollution. You can read all about it here.


Nappy recycling

nappy recycling

While most disposable nappies are actually recyclable, the UK doesn’t currently have the facilities to process them in the right way. Yet. This is why Pura is partnering with NappiCycle – a nappy recycling service based in Wales.

Our joint aim is to bring this service to the entire UK. Read more here.

We’re already talking to one local council in the UK about trialling the service and it’s top of Pura’s agenda to make this a reality in the next few years. The process won’t be easy, but we like a challenge! Watch this space…

The choice is yours

This guide aims to help and educate, but ultimately the decision is yours. We do hope that you found it useful!

Learn more about Pura’s nappy range here.




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