Real Nappy Week stinks

Disposable nappies make an unpleasant part of childcare more bearable. So why is a womans' group campaigning against them?

Robert Smeaton

Topics Politics

Let’s face it, however much you love your kids, changing nappies is nobody’s idea of a good time. But if you’ve got young children, there’s no escaping it. I’ve got two kids under four and all I ask is that keeping them clean and dry should be as easy as possible. So I love disposable nappies – easy to get on and off, and easy to get rid of.

But now it’s the 11th Real Nappy Week, from 11-18 March. (Is it a coincidence that 18 March is Mother’s Day?) This is a week when you can celebrate ‘real’ nappies by turning up at a ‘nappucino’, in Weymouth, a real nappy display in Croydon or a real nappy fashion show in Milton Keynes. Real nappies are the ones you wash and use again, not seen by most people since the 1970s. To be honest, any type of nappy that’s been used looks unmistakably ‘real’ to me.

So what’s behind all this? Surely, since the widespread adoption of that life-changing invention the disposable nappy, we’ve all been counting our blessings and chucking soiled nappies in the bin instead of scraping the poo off them with a shitty stick.

That’s not good enough for the eco-fussbuckets at the Women’s Environmental Network charity (WEN), which is behind Real Nappy Week (1). WEN, its website says, ‘is a unique, vital and innovative campaigning organisation, which represents women and campaigns on issues, which link women, environment and health.’ The very commas are enough to make you weep. It runs its campaigns and pays its six staff with cash from the taxpayer, the Lottery and large charitable trusts.

WEN believe that reusable nappies are the future because disposable nappies (which contribute, at most, three per cent of household waste) fill up landfills and may take ‘hundreds’ of years to biodegrade. In fact, as even WEN admits, we’ve no idea how long they take to degrade, since they’re a recent invention.

WEN claims, based on some sums it did in 2002, that home-laundered reusable nappies are up to £500 cheaper than disposables over the period a child needs them. But they miss out the costs of tumble-drying. Simply keeping the children’s clothes clean, without washing nappies, meant my last electricity bill was well over £300 and the vast majority of that is coming from the tumble drier and washing machine, both recent models with good eco-ratings.

Outdoor drying is fine in a southern European summer but useless in the UK pretty much all year round, especially if you have no garden. And WEN take no account of the extra time that, yes, mostly women, will have to spend dealing with the poo, the washing and the drying.

For a women’s group, this lot really seem to have it in for women. I wonder how many men, currently doing their bit on the nappy-changing front, would backslide if the simplicity of disposables were replaced by terry cotton and safety pins?

And what about the babies? Nobody asks them. What makes disposable nappies work is the super-absorbent crystals of sodium polyacrylate they contain, a technology developed by NASA for astronaut nappies. And they say space travel has brought no benefits.

Thanks to sodium polyacrylate, disposable nappies, unless left on for far too long, are practically dry when you change them, as is the child. That’s not the case with fabric nappies. Which do you think a baby would choose?

Since ‘sodium polyacrylate’ is a horribly polysyllabic, scientific and chemical sounding name, the anti-disposable nappy brigade has tried to insinuate that it might be dangerous to babies. The fact that there is no evidence to support this must be a disappointment to them. Disposables have been in widespread use for 30 years now with no reports of sick babies.

Don’t take my word for it that campaigning for the use of real nappies is a complete waste of time and money. In May 2005, the Environment Agency published a report titled ‘Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK’ (2).

With appendices, the report ran to 209 pages and it scrutinised the environmental impact of both disposable and reusable nappies with an extraordinary rigour. Few other products have had their environmental costs so intensely studied.

Its conclusion was: ‘no [nappy] system clearly had a better or worse environmental performance.’ Yes, that’s right, including manufacturing, energy use, transport and disposal, there is nothing to choose between disposables and reusables in terms of their impact on the environment.

Although a representative from WEN was on the advisory board to the study, the group rejected its findings. There’s a surprise. Well not that much of a surprise. Since when have the greens allowed the facts to get in the way of their articles of faith, however wrong-headed?

Robert Smeaton is a freelance writer and, when he’s not changing nappies, blogs at Notting Hill Nonsense.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton argued that we should drop the ‘ethics’ and just start living. Women’s Environmental Network took part in a spiked online debate on the future of waste. Ethan Greenhart pondered the ethics of starting a family. Read more at: spiked issue ethical living

(1) Women’s Environmental Network

(2) Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK, Environment Agency [pdf]

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Topics Politics


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