Updated: Feb 9, 2019
By Tamara Dawson
It was late 2013 and we were expecting our first baby. We’d been living in a Solwezi, about 600km from Zambia’s capital Lusaka for 2 years. Back then I had been motivated to consider cloth nappies because quality disposable nappies weren’t reliably available at the time. That has now changed and most major brands are readily available but I still know some moms who freight disposables in because they’re so expensive here. I did however know one mom who had a small stash of modern cloth nappies that she used part time on her little boy. That was the first time that I was exposed to the alternative to disposables.
Some googling soon revealed
Modern cloth nappying is nothing like what you remember from the old days of terry squares and plastic waterproof covers: it has become much smarter and there are myriad options out there to suit every taste and budget
Studies seem pretty divided about whether it’s more environmentally friendly to cloth nappy or not. Washing nappies uses a lot of water and electricity, which can offset its benefits.
Normal disposables contribute a massive amount of non-biodegradable plastic (and toxic, untreated human waste) to landfill.
Some further research later, I discovered that the cost of disposables over a child’s life is staggering – in 2014 I calculated about R13 000 or close to $1000 per child. I decided my decision to cloth diaper my new baby or not would be a purely financial one. And so I got to work putting together an elaborate spreadsheet to work out the costs involved in reusable nappies including detergent and water costs, adjusting for my baby’s age and even including subsequent siblings (shoutout to all the other excel-geeks out there, gotta love a good spreadsheet). The results were clear. Cloth nappies were the outright winner.
And so my journey began.
At first, I was overwhelmed by the options available online so I invested in a set of the only option readily available in South African stores at the time: basic Bambino Mio prefolds and covers.
My baby was born and we used cloth on him from the moment we were home from hospital. When my little boy was 2 months old I discovered the South African Cloth Nappy Users Facebook page (with their growing popularity they now have a really great website). It’s been the best place to learn all the jargon, see what’s available in South Africa and get advice on various nappying issues. These days, there are many more options available in SA and the cloth trade, both new and second hand, is booming.
Based on what I’ve learned over the years, I’ve added quite a few new nappies to my stash. I now have some pocket nappies, some nicer covers, and a small but precious collection (and here) of fitted nappies made by WAHM’s (work at home mom) for night time use. I am now using the same collection of nappies on my second baby so the savings just add up. I’ve spent more money than what I initially planned for in my great big spreadsheet (mostly due to loving the cute cloth prints) but it is still a fraction of what disposables would have cost.
Cloth moms fall into two camps: those who absolutely despise disposables and would never bring one anywhere near their children; and those who are more amenable to using disposables when it just makes life a little bit easier: for holidays, sometimes at night, when a baby has thrush etc. As a member of the latter camp, I’ve had enough experience with disposables to know that I really prefer cloth, for more than ideological reasons. In fact, as time has passed, my motivation for using cloth has changed. As my babies spend their days with big fluffy cloth bums, I’ve become more grateful that I made the decision I did, for so many reasons:
Cloth is simpler. It’s simpler for their bums, simpler for the planet. My babies’ bums are happier in cloth, preferring the nice soft cotton against them to the heap of pungent smelling chemicals. My babies get less thrush when they’re in cloth and when we use reusable wipes. I hate the pile of stinky plastic that builds up so quickly when we’re on disposables. And lastly, let's be honest, there’s just nothing cute about a plastic covered bum.
As I started to delve into cloth nappies I found that the conversations naturally progress to other more natural, ethical ways of living. I’ve found I’ve been challenged to think more carefully about other ‘disposable’ items: wet wipes, menstrual products and even family cloth (reusable toilet paper, though so far I’ve been less brave on this front). It’s also got me thinking about how ethically sourced my cloth nappies are. Not all nappies are produced equally and I can no longer recommend the cheaper brands with a clear conscience. On the other hand there is a growing movement of locally made cloth nappies; beautiful, unique cloth products that are hand made by WAHMs. These moms are empowered as small business owners and when I buy a reputable WAHM product I like knowing that I’m supporting a family and not a faceless corporate.
Cloth is not for everyone: it really helps that I live in a water-rich country with plenty of sunny days and I have space in my home to have nappies almost constantly drying. With one baby in cloth I wash nappies every second day. The extremists (see camp one above!) will often tell you that using cloth is no more effort than disposables- I don’t think they’re being honest. It’s definitely more effort than simply tossing a dirty nappy in a garbage bin. But this is our children’s’ planet at stake. It’s a small way in which I can contribute. And it is well known that small shifts often have multiplier effects. My own continuing journey to a more natural way of living is proof of that.
Reading list The SACNU website is a good place to start reading to make sense of the dizzying amount of jargon and options around cloth.
About the author: Tamara is lucky to be a stay a home mom to two little humans. Originally South African, she now lives with her husband Peter and their kids in a Solwezi, North West Zambia. Tamara met Peter when they studied Chemical Engineering together at the University of Cape Town.
* This post has been updated since first published