Saturday, 11 May 2013

The dirty business of disposable nappies

Disposable nappies are a pain in the bum for any parent, but for the environment they pose a real toxic danger; a disaster waiting to happen. Yet with more disposable nappies ending up in landfill every year, Kieran Watkins asks, is it about time we binned the disposable in favour of the reusable nappy?
It is one of life’s most infuriating challenges. As an expectant mother, you prepare for it by reading as many baby books as you can cram into nine months. For dads, you quietly wait with bated breath, praying that you do not have to rise to the challenge and actually do it. For anyone else who happens to be in the room at the same time, the best advice would be to hold your nose and get out quick.
Yes, the art of changing a nappy is a rite of passage for every parent. It all begins with the tell-tale sign; the rancid smell that fills the air like a field that has just been covered in manure during spring. As your stomach churns you hold it together, determined to achieve the impossible. Man might have walked on the moon or built the automobile, but nothing compares to dealing with the contents of a dirty nappy. Grabbing hold of your bundle of joy, who at this point has stopped crying and is now laughing at you, you grapple with the nappy and start to uncover the true delights to the task you have unwillingly taken on. Hold it together now.
With the sweating, swearing and struggle all over and a baby smelling of talcum powder and Sudocrem, you can chuck the dirty diaper in the bin with a sense of pride, breathing a sigh of relief as you celebrate. It is all over, your efforts were not in vain and now you can go back to normal life before you repeat the process in four hours’ time.
But whilst you relax and cuddle your baby, that disposable nappy you just chucked away in the bin is sitting there. Ticking away, like an unexploded bomb waiting to wreak havoc on anything and everything around it.  And it is not alone. It will be joined by 4,000 more disposables from your child alone as they grow up, before it is taken away and joins 8 million more dirty nappies in the UK every day. All sitting there, slowly rotting away.
And with more children being born every year, not just in the UK but across the world, the problem of disposable nappies looks set to linger for the years ahead.
90% of disposable nappies in the UK end up in landfill according to Which? magazine. Each nappy takes up to 200 years to decompose, which has a significant impact on the environment.
Before the introduction of the first disposable nappy in the mid twentieth century, cloth or reusable nappies were commonly used, with some indicators dating the first nappy back to the 16th century. The word ‘diaper’ comes from Middle English which refers to ‘a type of cloth’. The word was used by William Shakespeare in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, where he wrote: “Another bear the ewer, the third a diaper.”
During the 19th century, their use spread throughout the UK. The traditional nappy was made of cloth, mainly cotton, held together by a safety pin and usually accompanied by a muslin blanket to stop any leaks. It could be washed and re-used, with minimal impact on the environment except for when washing the nappy.
But despite mass production, worries started to circulate about their effectiveness. Mothers were concerned about the damage to their child’s skin, whilst others complained about the difficulties with cleaning the cotton and muslin cloth.
Thankfully, British housewife Valerie Hunter Gordon realised the potential for a new, effective and disposable nappy product. She came up with the concept of a two-part disposable nappy in 1948 called the ‘Paddi’. It was an instant success. Made of cellulose wadding covered with cotton wool and held together by an outer plastic, adjustable garment with press-studs holding it together; the Paddi was patented and sold nationwide through Boots stores in 1950 before making waves across the pond in America.

Commenting on the first disposable product for mums, Ari Antika from Best Choice for Baby website said: “The Paddi was extremely successful.
It was her personal touch that made the product so successful.
Valerie Hunter Gordon made over 400 Paddis herself using her sewing machine at the kitchen table.”
With time-conscious parents preferring the Paddi over the traditional cloth nappy, the modern day disposable was born. And we have hardly looked back since. Today, disposable nappies are used on average five times a day until children are toilet trained around 24-30 months.

It is estimated that a child will use between 4,000-6,000 nappies in their lifespan. In weight, this means 150kg (62.2 stone) is wasted per child. In total, 3 billion nappies are thrown away by households in the UK alone. (Source: Nappy Alliance)

The figures speak for themselves, but these are just for the UK. Compare the figures to the US and the results are shocking. Research by Time Magazine in 2008 estimated that 27.4 billion disposable diapers are discarded each year in the US, resulting in 3.4 million tonnes being sent to rot in landfill.

Disposable nappies are big business in the US, where multinational companies like Procter and Gamble and Kimberley-Clark, owners of Pampers and Huggies respectively are worth $5.7 billion to the US economy, with the figure increasing year on year as consumer demand pushes nappy production to the limit.

The pressure on the $5.7bil business was made apparent last year following a fire at the Nippon Shokubai Co. plant in Osaka, Japan in September last year, which threatened to wipe out 320,000 tons of superabsorbent polymers which go into making one fifth of the world’s nappy supply.
Before it closed, the plant was running at full capacity to cope with increasing demand from developing nations such as China and Brazil, where births among the population are high.

Retail analyst and mother-of-two Michelle Zipp, 38, said at the time of the explosion that there “could well be empty shelves” as a result of the explosion.

“There may soon be long lines of people attempting to buy what's left in stock”, she said.
Although the factory is now back open and operating, with prices lowering at the start of 2013, the effects of the explosion highlights a growing dependence on disposable nappies. The reality is they are expensive and they are dangerous to the environment.  We might well lead busy lives, but as the world starts accepting the consequences of climate change and global warming, change is needed.

This is why the traditional cotton nappy - the reusable nappy - is making a comeback. Dogged by claims that it was too hard to clean and a waste of precious time to bother with, the reusable nappy is back in fashion.

Supported by retailers, county councils, waste disposal companies and of course, their most important backer, mums; the ‘Go Real’ campaign is one of the groups leading the reusable nappy movement.

Launched in 2009, the group originally started out from the government-led Real Nappy Campaign with the promise that they would “demystify” the assumptions commonly made about reusable nappies.
A spokesperson from the Go Real campaign said: “The Team at Go Real is passionate about demystifying real nappies. 

“The reality is, it is confusing when faced with so much choice.

“That is the very reason why Go Real exists; to assist parental choice and make the 'Going Real’ process as simple as possible.”

The campaign launched with an official website, www.goreal.org.uk, which offers support, discounts on reusable products and tips for mums who want to “feel confident” about using reusables.

The main aim of Go Real however was to try and persuade councils to join the cause. Research from Go Real shows that for every 4,000 disposable nappies used by a child, only 24 reusables would be needed.

The cheapest reusable kits cost £80, which including washing costs saves a family £500 per child compared to the cost of using disposables. They are also 40% better for the environment, helping families reduce their carbon footprint.

By offering their advice to councils, the campaign has gone nationwide. One council which supports the campaign is Lincolnshire County Council. Working with parents and Go Real, the council founded the ‘Lincolnshire Real Nappy Network’ in 2011 and has helped promote reusables through cash-incentive schemes and free reusable nappy kits.

Victoria Frodsham, Sustainability Education Officer for the council said: “Using real nappies is a way for parents to reduce the amount of waste they produce and save money.”

With 9,000 tonnes of disposable nappies thrown away each year in Lincolnshire, enough to fill 27 Airbus A380 planes, the council was keen to promote an environmentally-friendly alternative.

10 free kits, made up of different reusable nappies and cleaning accessories are loaned to parents across the county for up to three weeks. If a parent decides to buy a kit or product after the trial period, the council will help fund the parent, as Victoria explains.

“To further support the use of real nappies, Lincolnshire County Council offers a cash-back scheme.
“Parents can claim £30 back when they spend over £50 on real nappies.”

The network is run by volunteers, all of whom Victoria says “have children and use real nappies themselves”, passing on their experience to Mothers who wish to change from disposables to reusables.

Mum of three Alexandra Harris is one of the volunteers involved with the network. Mum to Emily, Imogen and Daniel, she spoke about a “cloth revolution” in Lincolnshire.

“Using disposable nappies never sat right with me morally, the thought of all those nappies in landfill made me despair.

“Thankfully, there are a range of types, systems, brands of reusable nappies out there.

“It’s important that people are able to get advice on the best ones, which is why I volunteered.”

Although Alexandra admitted that there was “still many people that need convincing”, the message of the Go Real campaign is certainly spreading.

Another council which has invested in the campaign is West Berkshire Council. With disposable nappies accounting for 8% of all landfill in the county, the council has decided to tackle dirty nappies head on by working closely with their waste disposal provider Veolia on launching their own real nappy network.

Jessica Stone, Waste Minimisation Officer for Veolia in West Berkshire said: “The main reason the council and Veolia Environmental Services support the campaign is to reduce the amount of nappies and sanitary waste ending up in landfill.”

The 25 year commitment between Veolia and the council, which started in 2009, includes launching a monthly ‘Nappuccino’ event where mums can meet with a real nappy advisor to assist them when changing from disposable to reusable. The council also offers free trial kits, which Jessica says have benefited “nearly 200 families” in the area.

“The campaign has been positively received in West Berkshire amongst the community.

“The benefits for parents are primarily cost savings, but for the wider county, the council has been able to save on waste disposal and help improve the environment.”

With other councils following suit, West Berkshire and Lincolnshire are not alone, and as councils change their view, so have the retailers. Sales of reusables have increased in the last decade, with retailers including Tesco and Boots selling reusable nappies alongside disposable brands in-store and online.

Reusable nappy company Bambino Mio is one reusable nappy brand which has benefited from the rise of the reusables. Founded by husband and wife Guy and Jo Schanschieff, the small family business now sells reusable nappies in more than 70 countries and has earned the couple an MBE and numerous industry awards.

Talking about the company’s values, Guy stressed that his company have proved successful because of their “green credentials” and “family focus.”

“Bambino Mio may have grown in size but the core family values remain the same.”

Guy Schanschieff was also one of the founders of the Nappy Alliance, a group of reusable nappy companies which have joined together to “promote consumer choice and to help protect the environment”.

With other brands out there for parents to use, it is down to the supermarkets to try and promote reusable brands alongside common disposable ones such as Huggies and Pampers, as well as their own-branded nappy product.

One retailer which plans to take advantage of parents buying reusable nappies is Britain’s third biggest supermarket Sainsbury’s.

In a statement, Sainsbury’s Nappy Buyer Marcus Hughes said: “Sainsbury’s do not currently sell reusable nappies but this is something we are looking into.

“Although there is only a small percentage of people using reusable nappies – approximately 2.5% by value – Sainsbury’s feel strongly in offering products that sit within our 2020 Sustainability initiatives.”

Sainsbury’s went on to confirm that they were also ensuring their own branded nappies were “primarily being made by reusable, biodegradable resources.”

Sainsbury’s commitment to changing its nappy policy comes at a time of uncertainty for the disposable nappy industry.

One of the UK’s biggest nappy brands Huggies will be pulling out of the UK and Europe in April this year following owner Kimberly-Clark’s decision to focus on developing markets in Asia and Africa. The move will allow retailers to expand their own nappy products, but also encourage reusable brands to fill the gap left when Huggies vacates the supermarket shelves.

However some retailers are sticking to disposables. When asked whether they sold reusable nappies, health and beauty retailer Superdrug said: “Superdrug does not sell reusable nappies.”

When pushed on the environmental problems associated with disposables, the retailer went on to add that: “All our own-brand nappies carry disposal advice advising customers to dispose of them in a responsible matter.”

Their stance on reusable nappies mirrors the UK government’s reluctance to support reusable nappy groups. In a statement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Helen Matthews from the Defra Waste Programme said that “Defra does not take a specific policy decision on nappy waste.”
“Defra is not working with nappy companies or campaigning charities to promote reusable nappies”, she added.

The Freedom of Information request did reveal however that Defra would be publishing a waste prevention programme by the end of 2013, looking at which “waste streams should be a priority.”

Even at a local level, reusable nappy schemes have been criticised by county council staff. Johanna Walker, who works at Lincolnshire County Council as Sustainability Education Officer alongside Victoria Frodsham took a different stance to her colleague on the effectiveness of the Go Real campaign.

Before setting up the network I contacted Go Real for some best practice information about how to set up a network etc.

“As a service provider I found that the services we received from Go Real for the money we paid didn’t equate to value for money.”

Johanna went on to confirm that the council had since “decided not to continue” their partnership with Go Real, but will continue to run the Network on their own.

But the key to changing people’s perceptions of reusable nappies is to win over the many mums who have to deal with nappy changing; mums and the brave few dads who boldly go where most parents have but dread to go each time their child needs changing.

Like councils and retailers, opinion among mums seems to be changing. Lizzie Fox, 38 from Farnham in Surrey used nappies for her son Berry, now 12, and never looked back.

“I decided to use reusable nappies because I was concerned about the environmental impact of disposables.

“Reusables work out much cheaper than disposables over the three years of use, even with the washing taken into account.

“I would definitely recommend them over the non-biodegradables. I have friends who saw me use them with Berry when he was little and are now using them with their own babies.”

Kirsty Hannam, 36, a full-time mother living in Fremantle, Western Australia to William, 4, and Angus, 9 months, agrees with Lizzie that the “ethical and financial reasons” were why she chose to use reusable nappies.

“Today’s reusable nappies are much more user friendly than the ‘old school’ towelling nappy our mums used.

“Plus the level of impact on the environment is much less when using reusables”, Kirsty added.

But some Mums remain unconvinced. Jade Williams, 20, from Alton, Hampshire, said that disposables were “easier” to use and clean.

“Using disposable nappies is easy. Although slightly lazy, they are perfect for busy, working families.

“What also puts me off about using reusable nappies is cleaning them after your child has made a mess in them.

“The idea is not appealing”, she added.

It seems the pong of disposable nappies just will not go away. Reusable nappies still have a long way to go before they become the preferred choice for parents. But with more councils and supermarkets supporting them and history showing that reusables do work, it does suggest that the UK is heading in the right direction.  

Whatever happens though, parents are still going to end up getting their hands dirty changing their beloved son or daughter’s soiled nappy, choking on the fumes being omitted from a rather ripe mixture that only a mother could handle. Good luck mums!

Go Real’s ‘Real Nappy Week’ campaign starts from Monday, April 15 till Sunday, April 21. The Nappy Week will be supported by local councils and charities, and will round off with a Guinness World Record attempt to break the record for the most reusable nappies changed simultaneously. For more information, contact 0845 850 0606 or visit www.goreal.org.uk.

This 3,000 word essay was submitted as part of my Journalism degree at the University of Kent

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