I am frequently asked “are cloth nappies really better for the environment when you take into consideration all the energy you waste washing them?”
The short answer is “Yes, they are.”
A 2008 report by the Environment Agency found that if sensible approaches were taken to washing nappies, using reusable over disposable would reduce your carbon footprint by between 16 and 40%. You can read that report here
To obtain the 40% figure you need to wash at no higher than 60 degrees C, wash a full load (not necessarily of nappies, other items can be washed too) and pass nappies down to subsequent children or sell them on.
This figure only takes into consideration the manufacture and transportation of the nappies, it does not address the landfill issue. It is estimated that 400,000 tonnes of disposable nappies head to landfill each year (source: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/science-technology/st1nappyalliance.pdf). This obviously causes carbon emmission issues as the nappies breakdown, uses up valuable land to fill with rubbish, causes transportation issues of carrying that amount of nappies to landfill and finally the problem of human excreta ending up in landfill where it might pollute aquifers (I address this final issue here). Most cloth nappy users will use their nappies for multiple children and/or pass or sell them on to others when they no longer need them, meaning one set of 24 cloth nappies may have diapered 3 or more children before ending up in landfill (or textile recycling!)
Finally, it does not take into consideration all the chemicals and raw materials used in the manufacture of disposable nappies. For example, one cup of crude oil goes into each disposable nappy, and at a time when we are rapidly approaching (or some might say have passed) the point of Peak Oil, where we are running out of this resource that has many other more useful purposes than to be peed and pooed on, it is a serious consideration.
So in summary, yes cloth nappies really are greener than most disposables – they have a smaller carbon footprint, less waste ending up in landfill and uses fewer of the earth precious resources. So go on, give them a try!