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Nappy Fabrics - Pros and Cons

Thursday, 13 September 2018

13th September 2018 - This is a new article and i'm still working on the final fabrics of polyester/Microfibre.

We frequently get asked what is the “best” or most “environmentally friendly” fabric to use.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer and it’s not as clear cut as all microfibre is bad and natural cotton is great, they all have environment impacts.  As a parent you’ll need to choose what is the most important environmental aspect to you, will be it carbon footprint, will it be the ability to biodegrade, will it be longevity (less need to replace), will it be no shedding of plastic fibres from the fabric?

Remember whichever nappy fabric you choose you will be saving approx 5500 nappies from going to landfill per baby. You'll be reducing your plastic waste, chemical waste, baby will be leading a more breathable and chemically reduced nappy time.

I’m in no way a fabric expert but these are what I understand about nappy fabrics and their pros and cons below.  Our human knowledge is developing and changing all the time, so I will keep coming back to the article to update on new findings.

NON-ORGANIC (STANDARD) COTTON

The original nappy fabric used for many years in the good old terry squares, cotton it is the oldest fabric used by mankind. Cotton is comfortable, durable and absorbent making it a great fabric for nappies.   Most cotton grown in the world is not grown organically at The Nappy Lady we try to refer to this as “standard cotton” to avoid confusion with organic cotton nappies.  Standard Cotton is one of the most polluting crops in the world and contributes to environmental pollution through the use of pesticides, fertiliser and insecticides. We’ll examine the pros and cons further below


Pros

  • Cotton is natural breathable fibre suitable for all weathers.
  • Hypoallergenic – can be worn close to the skin
  • Absorbent and can hold up to 27  times its own weight in water 1
  • Easy to clean and can withstand high temperatures and can even be sterilized by boiling (we do not recommend boiling for modern nappies though!)
  • Fabric is easy to dye
  • Soft – although goes harder over time with washing if not tumble-dried
  • Every part of the cotton plant is useful in some way. The seeds are used in cattle feed, producing cotton oil.  The lint is used to manufacture paper as well as medical supplies such as bandages or cotton buds


Cons

  • Cotton (organic and standard cotton) require huge amounts of water. According to the WWF 20,000 litres of water are required to produce 1kg of cotton which is enough to produce one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. 2
  • Vast amounts of energy are required to grow, manufacture and transport cotton. Plus, it needs lots of energy to care for the finished product. Data from WWF says one load of drying requires 5x as much energy as washing. This is why we always recommend you airdry wherever possible to minimise the environmental impact of your laundry. You control your environmental impact by your laundry choices. 3.
  • Vast amounts of pesticides and fertiliser are used to grow the crop. This can lead to pollution and destruction of the land and health implications for workers if farmed irresponsibly.
  • The Pesticide Action Network UK states that globally “cotton covers just 2.4% of the world cultivated land but uses 6% of the worlds pesticides and 16% of insecticides which is more than any other major single crop” 4   Many of these pesticides are hazardous and toxic.Pesticides are poisons designed to kill and harm living organisms – and they achieve that very effectively. However, pesticides do not just harm the organisms that they are designed to control. Pesticides impact on non-target organisms, including people.  The World Heath Organisation (WHO) estimates 350 000 people die every year from acute pesticide poisoning.” 5
  • Cotton is prone to shrinkage so must be prewashed before sewing.
  • It is often blended with polyester to minimise shrinkage however this changes the structure of the fabric and polyester isn’t a natural material.  Polyester is found in the base weave of most cotton nappies.
     

Is cotton biodegradable?  Yes, it is a completely natural crop grown in fields and is completely biodegradable in the correct circumstances. It can also be recycled. However, if the nappy comes with a base/mesh weave of polyester that part will not biodegrade.
 


ORGANIC COTTON

Organic cotton just like standard cotton. It is comfortable, durable and absorbent however organic cotton is farmed so it’s sustainable and renewable.

Pros

  • The organic cotton crop must be grown according to established standards and does not use harmful chemicals like synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or GM organisms. 5.1 Organic cotton therefore doesn’t poison land, water sources and air. The organic cotton farm workers do not suffer from health problems caused by chemicals used in standard cotton production.  

Cons

  • Organic cotton certainly minimised the environmental damage however it doesn’t solve the vast energy and water required by the crop, and the time it takes to replenish the harvests.
  • Without a polyester base/mesh weave found in most cotton nappies, organic cotton nappies tends to wear quicker and aren’t as long lasting. This means the product is more likely to need replacing quicker than a standard cotton version.  The only 100% organic cotton nappy range we have found that doesn’t have the polyester base/mesh weave are organic cotton nappies made by Motherease. These would be the Organic Sandys, Organic MEOS, Organic Unos, Organic Duos.


Is Organic Cotton biodegradable?  Yes, it is a completely natural crop grown in fields and is completely biodegradable in the correct circumstances. It can also be recycled.



BAMBOO

Bamboo nappies launched back in 2005.  They were immediately very popular as bamboo is more absorbent than cotton and at first glance appears to be far eco-friendlier crop in comparison to cotton.  However, as time has gone on there have been increasing questions into the environmental impact of bamboo fabric production. The labelling of products has changed from Bamboo to Bamboo Viscose or Bamboo Rayon as these are an accurate description to what the fabric actually is. Bamboo is no longer considered a natural nappy fabric but a semi-synthetic fabric.

Pros

  • Bamboo has many advantages over cotton.  According to Kew Gardens Bamboo is “considered to be the world’s fastest growing plant.” Bamboo “can grow several feet in 24 hours and reach full height in a month or two.” Bamboo can be continually re-harvested with no damage to the environment. Unlike cotton, because it is a grass, it regenerates after being cut without the need for replanting – just like a lawn.  The speed that it grows and because it can grow in such diverse climates makes the bamboo plant a sustainable and versatile resource.
  • Bamboo is an efficient use of land. Bamboo grows very densely, and a high yield can be produced in a small area. Furthermore, bamboo is a “one-time planting” crop and requires little care or maintenance.
  • The Bamboo crop has low water consumption and very little is irrigated
  • Bamboo grows without the need for pesticides or fertilisers. Bamboo contains a natural substance called “bamboo-kun” which is antimicrobial and gives the plant a natural resistance against pests.
  • Bamboo can store “four times the CO2 of a stand of trees of similar size” and “it releases 35 percent more oxygen.” 7
  • Bamboo fabric has a very soft feel (although will go harder with washing unless sometimes tumble-dried)
  • Absorbency – Bamboo is incredibly hydroscopic it absorbs more liquid than cotton or polyester. 8
  • Breathability – Bamboo gives higher air permeability or breathability making it very cool to ear because of the micro spaces in the fibre structure. 9

CONS

  • Bamboo is so absorbent the drying time is very long as there is more water after washing to evaporate.  I have known bamboo nappies to take 3 days to dry on an airer.  Bamboo can be tumble dried but this must be on low as the fabric is delicate and can be damaged by high temperatures.
  • Bamboo is no longer considered a “natural” fabric. The original crop is definitely natural but due to the intensive chemical process of turning the crop into a fabric, the finished fabric is closer in structure to a synthetic fabric. “Textiles labelled as being made from bamboo are usually not made by mechanical crushing and retting. They are generally synthetic rayon made from cellulose extracted from bamboo.” 10  
  • Bamboo requires energy, water, and chemicals to turn the bamboo crop into fabric.  The “processing its fibre into textiles requires heavy-duty chemical solvents …that can harm human health and the environment.” 11 Manufacturing bamboo viscose or bamboo rayon has similar environmental impacts to any other type of rayon manufacturer
  • Although bamboo doesn’t need pesticides, there is no guarantee that they are not being used to maximise crop outputs.
  • The European NGO Made by rates Bamboo Viscose on the same environmental rating as standard (conventional) cotton. 12  This came as a complete shock to me when researching this article.

As you have read the majority of bamboo is made using strong chemicals to make it into a fabric however there is some good news.  Some bamboo fabric is made in a more environmentally friendly way and this seems to be the case with the major bamboo nappy manufacturers.  Check your nappy for Oeko-tex certification to ensure adherence to people and planet friendly manufacturing processes. Totsbots Bamboozle Stretchy and Little Lambs Bamboo holds the highest level of Oeko-tex 100 certification for their bamboo nappies. Motherease hold the Canadian equivalent certification.
 

Is Bamboo biodegradable?  Yes, it is in the correct circumstances. It can also be recycled.

 

HEMP

Hemp was always the environmentally friendly nappy fabric choice until around 2005 when bamboo came onto the nappy market and we found sales of hemp nappies heavily declined.  They declined so much we had to delist the products (there is only so much room in our warehouse).  There has been a big change in the market this year (2018) and hemp is definitely back in fashion and in high demand in nappy world!   Hemp is a fast-growing robust crop that grows in most temperate or sub-tropical areas. Hemp is derived from the Cannabis Sativa plant; the fibres of hemp are well known for their durability. Hemp was one of the first plants to be spun into fibre. 13

Pros

  • Hemp as a crop grows extremely fast (quicker than weeds) and is naturally pest resistant so it can be grown without the use of toxic pesticides and fertiliser. 
  • Hemp can be planted densely making efficient use of land. Hemp can produce 200-250% more fibre in the same amount of land as cotton. 14
  •  Hemp is a multi-use annual crop cultivated for fibre, animal feed and seed meaning there is little wastage
  • Hemp returns up to 70% of the nutrients back to the soil from the unused parts of the plants such as stems, leaves and roots, this leaves the land ready and fertile for the next crop. 15  Hemp also helps to prevent soil erosion and is good for aerating and building top soil. Hemp has long roots that descend for more than three feet which anchor and protect the top soil from run off and erosion. 16
  • In comparison to cottons vast demands for water research has shown that hemp requires on average 300–500litres of water for the production of 1 kg of dry matter of which 30% is suitable for fibre production. 17
  • When you add processing into the equation, cotton uses more than four times as much water as hemp. 18
  • As a fabric hemp is a superior fibre that holds its shape and is incredibly strong.
  • Hemp becomes softer with use.
  • It is porous and hence water absorbent.
  • Hemp is a breathable fabric that can keep us warm in winter and cool in summer. It’s particularly good in hot climates because it resists degradation by heat and is less prone to fading.
  • Hemp absorbs dyes well,

CONS

  • A characteristic feature of hemp is its abrasive nature. Due to this, it does not feel soft against the skin. However, as is the case with Ella’s House hemp nappies it can be blended with other fibres such as cotton to make it softer.  Over time if not tumble dried we do find hemp nappies can go quite hard.
  •  Garments made entirely from hemp tend to wrinkle easily. Not so much an issue with nappies especially when blended with cotton.  I have seen some hemp boosters go wrinkly though.
  • Hemp resists degradation in heat, however hemp fibres can be attacked by fungi and bacteria under hot and humid conditions so make sure you don’t leave hemp nappies or boosters languishing in a nappy bucket near a radiator or in the summer.  Mildew rots and weakens the material.
  • Overall, hemp appears to be slightly easier on the environment than cotton, considering it's superior on water and land requirements, and only slightly worse for energy use.
     

Is hemp biodegradable?  Yes, it is a completely biodegradable in the correct circumstances. It can also be recycled.



Polyester/Microfibre - Coming soon

 

Sources

1. https://sciencing.com/cotton-absorbent-6662538.html

2. https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/cotton

3. https://www.worldwildlife.org/videos/how-your-t-shirt-can-make-a-difference

4. http://www.pan-uk.org/cotton/

5. http://www.pan-uk.org/key-issues/

5.1 https://www.sei.org/mediamanager/documents/Publications/SEI-Report-EcologicalFootprintAndWaterAnalysisOfCottonHempAndPolyester-2005.pdf

6. Kew Gardens (27th April 2018) https://twitter.com/kewgardens/status/989767543253483520

7.  https://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/05/garden/05garden.html

8. http://eurecoecostore.blogspot.com/2011/02/faqs-bamboo-vs-cotton-absorbency-drying.html

9.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/46101352_AN_INVESTIGATION_OF_KNITTED_FABRIC_PERFORMANCES_OBTAINED_FROM_DIFFERENT_NATURAL_AND_REGENERATED_FIBRES

10.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo_textile

11. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jun/19/image/la-ig-alternative-natural-textiles-20110619

12. http://www.made-by.org/consultancy/tools/environmental/

13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemp

14. https://www.collective-evolution.com/2013/07/17/hemp-vs-cotton-the-ultimate-showdown/

15. http://planethemp.co.uk/hemp/

16. https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/category/fibers/hemp-fibers/

17. https://www.sei.org/mediamanager/documents/Publications/SEI-Report-EcologicalFootprintAndWaterAnalysisOfCottonHempAndPolyester-2005.pdf

18. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2011/04/high_on_environmentalism.html?via=gdpr-consent

 

Other Sources

https://theswatchbook.offsetwarehouse.com/2014/12/12/how-is-cotton-made-why-bad/

http://cottonaustralia.com.au/cotton-library/fact-sheets/cotton-fact-file-cotton-properties-and-products

https://theswatchbook.offsetwarehouse.com/2013/02/01/bamboo-fibre/

https://goodonyou.eco/bamboo-fabric-sustainable/

http://ojs.cnr.ncsu.edu/index.php/JTATM/article/viewFile/656/599

http://nopr.niscair.res.in/bitstream/123456789/10217/1/IJFTR%2035%283%29%20201-205.pdf

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2003/mar/20/research.science

https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/cotton-hemp-sustainable-textile-industry

https://theswatchbook.offsetwarehouse.com/2014/12/02/hemp-fibre-fabric-eco-benefit/
 

Nappy help & expertise since 1999