Time to Dispose of Disposable Nappies

Merrick, 9th October 2003ce

Most children have not been brought up using disposable nappies. Like so much of the consumption that Westerners think of as ‘normal’, disposable nappies are an unsustainable idea that wasn’t used until recently, and even now is only used by the wealthy nations.

The cost of using disposable nappies is great whichever way you measure it. The most obvious is to the parent themselves. Buying disposables costs about £600 per child more than using washable nappies. The saving is even greater if you buy second hand washables (local Real Nappy groups and ebay are good sources), and then sell them on once your kid outgrows them.

But the real cost is elsewhere. Using such vast quantities of paper fibre for each and every shit a child produces means a lot of trees have to be killed. Remember the infamous Newbury Bypass road scheme? There was a massive campaign against it because it cut through swathes of woodland and took down 10,000 trees. The UK uses twice that much for disposable nappies every single day. Seven million trees a year.

The environmental cost does not end there. Once the trees have had major resources consumed to have them trimmed and transported, they are then ‘chemically pulped’, a process in which strong acids are poured on to make them into mush. Depending on where this is done, the residual chemicals may or may not be treated before being poured into water courses.

The pulp is then treated. The chemicals that make up the absorbent layer of the nappies are not subject to government controls or independent testing. Sodium polyacrylate, the chemical that makes disposable nappies so absorbent, was removed from tampons in 1985 because of its link to Toxic Shock Syndrome. Despite all the evidence for its effects on adult women who used it in tampons, its usage in nappies continues and its possible effect on babies’ thin skin and reproductive organs remains unstudied.

There are unbleached and un-polyacrylated nappies available, but they’re very expensive and consume just as much paper and make just as much waste as a chemical disposable.

In the practicalities of its use, the disposable has many disadvantages. Studies in the USA show that babies in disposables are up to five times more likely to get nappy rash as babies in cotton. The plastic may keep the baby drier, but it is drying that actually provides the best conditions for the bacteria that cause nappy rash. Paediatricians agree that infrequent changes of nappy are the cause of nappy rash, whatever the type of nappy.

Many parents find that babies with skin conditions such as eczema improve when they are switched from disposable nappies.

After use, once a disposable nappy is discarded, the story is far from over. Used disposable nappies constitute a major environmental problem. They make up 4% of household waste in the UK. For every £1 spent on disposables, it costs the taxpayer 10p to get rid of them. They are taken to the ever-dwindling available landfill sites, where the shit and paper combine to make methane, a serious greenhouse gas. The chemicals and plastics mean that full decomposition won’t happen for centuries, with toxic chemicals polluting the land of the site and its water table for years.

If parents had to buy their disposable nappies at the start of parenthood, they’d have to set aside an entire room for storage. The resource consumption in making and transporting such a vast quantity of material is as unnecessary as it is unsustainable.

So what’s the alternative? Look back a generation or two and the answer is there in the cotton nappy. But these days, they’re not big leaky greying squares of towelling that need boil washing and fastening using origamic fiddly folding and safety pins.

These days they are available in a number of different shapes and fits, making leaking nappies are a thing of the past, and with the use of velcro or poppers there’s no pins involved.

Nappy users can still mix and match – rather like the way fast food is sometimes the only option, so many real nappy users will get the occasional disposable for when they’re travelling. Like many ethical consumption choices, it’s not necessarily an all-or-nothing deal, and every little helps.

And for people to whom the convenience of the disposable is a major factor, this is solved by the dozens of nappy laundering services throughout the UK. They provide the parent with clean, hygienically laundered cotton nappies and a deodorised bin, and take away the used ones. Compared with using disposables, the price is about the same (or far cheaper than using unbleached disposables) and the energy consumption involved is about one fifth.

The cost and waste issues extend far beyond those of us who are parents. The environmental assault of the production and disposal of disposables affects the global environment now and for centuries to come. It is an issue for anyone who uses air or water.

In an immediate social sense, it affects us all, and not just because, as was said earlier, the taxpayer spends £40m a year disposing of them. It directly attacks health care funding. Hospitals and care institutions squander budgets on disposables when reusables are cheaper, simply because disposables are more common and cotton has the outdated image of unwieldy fabric and dangerous pins.

This is changing, slowly. Already about 15% of babies in the UK use real nappies and this number is rapidly increasing, and in turn this is spreading the word to the vast institutional users.

It is a change that all parents of young children can make; it will benefit their pocket immediately, wider society swiftly and the natural environment permanently.

The Real Nappy Association is the central source for information and advice on all nappy-related issues, for local authorities, the media, health professionals and individuals. They also provide practical support, including advice on adult incontinence. They have a great website full of practical information, including lists of suppliers who do trial packs, and buyers for your second hand nappies once your baby outgrows them.

Real Nappy.com

For an information pack send a large SAE to:
The Real Nappy Association
PO Box 3704
SE26 4RX

For more info on laundering services and contact details for ones in your area, check out http://www.changeanappy.co.uk