How to choose ethical & eco-friendly nappies

Just want to know which brand to buy? Go to our disposable nappy reviews. If you want to understand what makes a nappy ethical or eco-friendly, read on.

Australia throws over 1.5 billion nappies a year into landfill (4.4% of total landfill mass), and each of these is estimated to take up to 500 years to break down1. With most nappies made predominantly from petrochemical based plastics, there is also a big environmental impact of their production. Environmental factors are the number one thing to consider when it comes to picking ethical and sustainable nappies.

In this article:

The most sustainable choice: reusable (cloth) nappies

Far and away the most sustainable option when it comes to nappies is to use reusable ones - even the most eco-friendly disposables cannot compare! By choosing reusable you will minimise raw material use, emissions associated with production and reduce your landfill impact.

The most popular type of reusable nappies available today are referred to as MCNs (Modern Cloth Nappies), which involve one or more absorbent inserts inside a water-resistant plastic cover.  These are easy to put on, can be washed in your washing machine, and can be re-used for your baby's entire time in nappies, and even through to second and third children.

While any reusable nappy is likely to have a smaller environmental impact than using disposables, there are some ways to minimise your impact even further:

Buy secondhand: there is a huge market for secondhand MCNs, often selling in good condition for $5 each - by purchasing this way, you don't cause any new carbon emissions or resource consumption, and instead you allow these products to continue to the end of their life rather than going straight to landfill.

Buy natural fibres: MCN inserts tend to be made either from microfibre (a petrochemical based non-natural fibre) or from natural fibres like bamboo, hemp or cotton. By checking the material and choosing natural fibres, you can lessen the fossil fuel consumption associated with your nappies, and inserts made from natural fibres can be composted once they are at the end of their life.

Most outer covers for MCNs are made from PUL plastic, but there is a natural animal-based alternative if you choose to use wool covers. Wool covers are coated with lanolin to provide a naturally waterproof option. Check the certifications of the supplier to ensure their animals are treated well.

For more information on how to use and wash reusable nappies, see the Clean Cloth Nappies website for helpful resources.

How to evaluate an eco-disposable nappy

If reusable nappies won't work for your situation, you may be looking at what "eco-disposables" are out there. A plethora of brands are springing up claiming to be eco-friendly, but how can you evaluate their claims? We break it down into four main components:

Impacts of raw materials

Traditionally, disposable nappies have been made up almost entirely of petrochemical based plastics. This means using up our limited remaining supplies of fossil fuels, as well as the damaging impacts associated with mining and processing these materials.

Many eco-disposables are made with a portion of plant-based materials, such as bamboo/cellulose rayon, cornstarch/sugarcane based bio-plastics, and wood pulp. These generally have lower emissions associated with their production, especially as they absorb CO2 from the air while in the growing phase.1

While on first glance using plant-based materials may seem like an obvious improvement, it is important to note that there are damaging impacts of these too, depending on how they are produced. Growing crops for corn and sugarcane-based bio-plastics can require a huge amount of energy and water, and deplete farmland that would otherwise be used for necessary food production.2 Sourcing bamboo and wood based materials can also be done in ways which are damaging to forest ecosystems and local economies.3

In order to be confident that choosing plant-based disposable nappies is actually a better ethical decision, it is important to look for the company's certifications around their plant based ingredients. For bamboo and wood, this means a sustainable forest certification such as FSC, PEFC or CFCC; or the EU Ecolabel which demonstrates sustainable sourcing across a number of materials. For sugarcane, Bonsucro certification provides similar guarantees, but is not yet widely utilised for bio-plastics. For cornstarch, we are not aware of any certification options.

It is possible these days to make almost every part of a disposable nappy out of plant-based materials aside from the sticky tabs for closure and the elastics around the legs. In this way eco-disposables can be as much as 93% plant-based. However, disposables looking to get an ethical market share will often claim to be plant-based even when they have only a low proportion of plant based ingredients. Look in the company's FAQs to find out an actual proportion, and if there isn't one listed, be skeptical that the real plant-based proportion is likely 30% or lower.

  • Look for a percentage of plant-based materials, 70-90% is a good range
  • Look for FSC, PEFC, CFCC or EU Ecolabel certification - without this, the impacts of sourcing plant-based materials could be just as high as traditional plastic options.


Carbon emissions

Carbon emissions occur during the raw materials and production stages of disposable nappies, but some eco-friendly disposables use renewable energy sources in their production factories to minimise this.

Location of manufacturing also makes a difference, buying nappies made in Australia or Asia will have lower carbon emissions associated with transporting them to your supermarket or doorstep, compared with those made in the EU.

Carbon emissions can also occur at the end of life for biodegradable nappies. When plant-based nappies start to decompose in landfill, they produce methane, which is much more damaging to the planet than CO2 emissions. The effect of this is large enough that it can actually bring lifetime emissions for plant-based nappies higher than their petrochemical plastic-based alternatives.4

To minimise this, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, it's best to dispose of biodegradable nappies in a plastic non-degradable bin bag, meaning they will break down much less when they reach landfill. A better long term solution would be for widespread commercial composting to be available for biodegradable nappies, as methane emissions reduce significantly when biodegradable nappies are composted.5 Unfortunately, this is not widely available at the moment.


  • Look for evidence that the company uses renewable energy in their factories
  • Buy nappies manufactured near to where you live, e.g. in Australia or Asia for less transport carbon emissions
  • Compost plant-based nappies if you can, to avoid landfill methane emissions (see next section)

End of life

Almost all disposable nappies, whether they are advertised as "eco" or not, will end up in landfill. The only exception is for eco-disposables which are 90%+ biodegradable, where it is possible to remove the non-degradable components (generally the sticky tabs and leg seals), and commercially compost. Finding a commercial composting option near you that will accept them can be difficult, but if you live in one of these locations, this is an excellent option.

"Eenee" nappies may be compostable in your Green/FOGO bin if you live in one of these councils:

  • Coffs Harbour, Nambucca, Bellingen Shire, Bega, Port Macquarie (NSW)
  • Hobart, Kingborough, Glenorchy (TAS)
  • Melbourne (VIC)
  • Onkaparinga (SA)
  • Augusta-Margaret River (WA)

(See the Eenee website for the most up to date list)

For other nappy brands which are predominantly but not 100% biodegradable, check with your local council or waste management service to see if they are accepted.

Note: in some cases it may be possible to home compost these highly biodegradable nappies if they contain wee only (no poo). Some retailers state that you require a "hot composting" method to do this safely. Do your own research before choosing this option!

If you're not in the fortunate position of being able to compost your nappies, they will end their life in landfill. Biodegradable components can break down in landfill if the nappy is packaged in a biodegradable bag and placed directly in your kerbside bin (i.e. not in a plastic bin bag), and some eco-disposable retailers encourage this. However, in terms of net environmental impact, it is probably much worse for these to degrade quickly in landfill than if they were to remain intact, as this process produces methane, a gas estimated to be 25 times worse for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

If your nappies are headed to landfill, It is actually better to package disposables, and especially bio-degradable ones, in non-biodegradable plastic bags or bin liners, depriving them of air and light so that they are much slower to decompose in landfill and produce methane. This is a huge factor in the environmental impact of eco-disposables - studies have shown that the methane emissions associated with the these products biodegrading in landfill easily outweigh their lower emissions in the production phase.4


  • The best option is to get a 90+% biodegradable nappy and compost it, generally through commercial composting services.
  • If you can't compost your nappies, biodegradable nappies have a huge global warming impact if they decompose in landfill, so wrap them in non-degradable plastic to minimise this.


Every brand of nappy we investigated has a long list of the "toxic chemicals" they don't contain. These lists are not generally backed by independent testing or any other evidence, so it is probably best not to put too much weight onto them.

A better option for ensuring the safety of the nappies you're choosing is to look for a certification. Two of the best are the 'OEKO-TEX STANDARD 100' which tests every part of the product for a catalog of substances which may be harmful to human health, and 'Allergy Certified' which tests for a long list of known allergens such as perfumes and extracts, as well as ingredients classified as harmful to skin, carcinogenic or damaging to fertility.

Look for these logos: rather than the Australian certification of the same name which is not well documented and appears to be less rigorous.

Another allergy certifications worth considering is 'Dermatest' which tests the product on a minimum of 30 participants and requires no reactions.

Social/Labour ethics

To best ensure that the workers involved in making your nappies are treated fairly, look for a certification like FSC certification which requires high standards for the raw materials phase.

For the production phase, check the country of manufacture. The nappies we investigated were manufactured either in China, the EU, or Australia. For most companies operating in the EU or Australia, there shouldn't be major concerns around labour ethics, but those in China are slightly more questionable. There isn't a lot of transparency around conditions in Chinese manufacturing, and forced labour is still a real issue in some areas.


  • Look for FSC certification or other certification that protects workers in the raw materials phase.
  • Choose nappies made in Australia or the EU rather than China to lower the risk of unethical labour practices.

How to spot greenwashing

Here are some red flags to look out for when it comes to greenwashing:

  • Vague statements about ingredients being plant-based with no specific ingredients or proportions listed (look instead for lists that include items like PLA, Bamboo viscose and SAP)
  • Statements like "sustainably sourced" with no sign of certification (look instead for an FSC certification, which should have their certificate number at the bottom of the logo)
  • Implying that the nappies are fully plant-based or have no plastic components. This is highly unlikely. Only one of the products we investigated was fully plant-based, and for products which are standard nappies with fasteners and elastic leg seals, no products are fully plant-based.
  • Wording that implies that their nappies will biodegrade in landfill. If you throw the nappies out in a bin bag, they will only have limited ability to biodegrade in landfill even if they have a high proportion of biodegradable ingredients. And as discussed above - this is actually probably a good thing!


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