Synthetic materials are key components of most modern nappy choices. Disposable nappies contain several layers of plastic to keep moisture away from baby’s skin and clothes, as well as petroleum-based chemicals which provide impressive absorbency but are potentially harmful. The most popular reusable nappies amongst the small percentage of parents choosing them are also made largely of man-made, plastic-based fibres such as polyester for the absorbent core, and polyester laminated to polyurethane (PUL) for the waterproof outer. Whilst providing excellent properties for a nappy, these materials do not allow the skin – the largest organ of the body – to ‘breathe’. In other words, air and moisture on and around the skin is trapped by the tightly woven fibres of synthetic fabrics, whereas the looser weave of natural materials allows sweat to evaporate rather than block skin pores, which also helps to regulate the body’s temperature. We all know the uncomfortable feeling of wearing ‘non-breathable’ socks or other clothing on a hot, sweaty summer’s day!
In addition, there is the environmental impact of plastic and synthetic fabrics. Estimates of how long a disposable nappy takes to break down are up to 500 years. However even this appears to be a gross underestimate, as it assumes that the nappy is in open air, whereas our modern landfills are sealed units underground where no air can get to; effectively this could mean that nappies take even longer to break down. It is a scary thought to think that every disposable nappy ever made and used is still in existence!
Another depressing aspect is that the term ‘break down’ is actually misleading; plastic never breaks down, it only ‘breaks up’ into miniscule pieces known as microplastics. Public attention has recently turned to the plight of marine life due to the enormous volume of plastic waste that is now in the oceans – larger pieces can snare or injure animals, but microplastics are just as deadly because they are mistaken for food such as plankton by fish, birds and other sea life. As well as obviously blocking their digestive tracts, these plastic particles are magnets for other harmful chemicals, making them a toxic and often lethal cocktail.
As if things weren’t bad enough, washing synthetic materials also releases microplastics into the water system, which at present the sewerage system cannot filter out. The advice to minimise this is to wash clothing as little as possible, as the more times an item has been washed the worse the microfibre shedding is. Unfortunately then, reusable nappies made of synthetic fabrics would therefore appear to be some of the worst offenders, given that they of course must be washed very frequently, and often have a long life cycle as they are commonly re-used on multiple children.
So we can see that although avoiding disposables will obviously be a greener choice, choosing cloth nappies made of synthetic materials also poses environmental concerns. But what else could do the job plastic does so well in being waterproof? Wool is nature’s answer. Sheep are kept warm in winter, dry from the rain, and cool in the summer due to the incredible natural properties of their wool coats. Lanolin is the natural wax that aids this process by making wool more waterproof. Wool is a renewable fibre as sheep grow a new fleece each year. The organic wool in Disana nappy covers comes from merino sheep reared in Patagonia, South America. This wool is very fine so is soft, not scratchy, against baby’s skin. For those who may be concerned about opting for wool out of concern for the animals’ welfare, rest assured that Disana sheep graze at a ratio of 2 sheep per hectare, the shearing process is slow and respectful so as to not stress the animals, and Mulesing is not practiced.