Friday, May 20, 2005

Nappy Talk


The Gnu household was joined by Baby Gnu last July and, like all new parents who don't want their carpets covered in piss and shit (I assume we're in the majority), we have been putting nappies on him several times a day. Caught between the desire to be green and the desire not to be up to our elbows in muck all the time, we were uncertain how to proceed in the matter of disposable versus washable nappies. Surely, we thought, in the twenty-first century, there must be some kind of sufficiently green compromise between the two extremes?

Well, so there was - or we thought so. The self-consciously amusingly named NatureBotts provides 'green' disposable nappies. Although they're not actually coloured green, they do have supposed green credentials:

  • Made from unbleached cotton, and no chlorine or bleaching agents used in their manufacture

  • Contain tea extract for odour neutralisation

  • 100% bio-degradable packaging

  • Proven to bio-degrade naturally in 8 weeks in a wormery (of particular interest to the Gnu household, since we actually have a wormery, although I haven't seen any worms in it for a long time - they don't like the light, those wormies)

  • Made from recycled materials

  • Manufactured in Germany, so less likely to break down three days after the expiry of the warranty... oh, sorry, ignore that bit

Well, we've been using them for almost a year, and they've been fine and dandy, apart from not being quite leak-proof enough to last a whole night (we've resorted to Pampers at night, but I shall do appropriate penance at the church of my choice as soon as Baby Gnu is potty-trained).

Now, the Environment Agency is telling me (and every parent) that we needn't have wasted our time worrying, because apparently washable nappies are no more eco-friendly than disposables.

Respected though the Environment Agency is, something about this report doesn't smell right (if I can put it that way). Undoubtedly, it's comprehensive (209 pages). The EA took care that the report's advisory board contained representatives from all sides of the argument (listing, amongst others, people from that embodiment of evil Procter & Gamble, as well as someone from cloth-nappy supplier Cotton Bottoms). The report takes care to detail the environmental threat posed by continual use of disposable nappies, pointing out that:

  • "2-3% of our household waste is estimated to be disposable nappies, approximately 400,000 tonnes of waste each year."

  • "If we take the Government’s most optimistic forecasts we will still be landfilling over 350,000 tonnes of disposable nappies."

  • Despite the above, "disposable nappies account for some 95% of the market."

  • "Used nappies (containing excreta) are discarded along with other municipal waste and will later on end up disposed either to landfill or to incineration. [However,] in the UK [only] 8% of municipal waste is incinerated."

  • "[12% of municipal solid waste is] recycled or composted, neither of which are currently suitable for managing used disposable nappies in the UK."

The report assumes that a typical child will wear nappies for the first two and a half years of its life - although a good many children will be out of nappies by that age (and it has been suggested that children in washable nappies actually get potty-trained sooner, simply because those nappies are less good at absorbing moisture - so the child feels more discomfort and is anxious to get out of nappies at an earlier age!).

It's when dealing with washable nappies that the report becomes controversial. For a start, it calculates the energy consumption necessary to wash such nappies on the basis of washing machines manufactured in 1997, overlooking the fact that washing machines have become much more energy efficient since then. Furthermore, the report assumes that 9% of washable nappy users IRON THEIR NAPPIES. Doubtless there are one or two potty (pun intended) souls out there who won't be satisfied until little Harry or Olivia is clad in smooth, unruffled cotton, but to me this is on a par with ironing socks.

The calculations are also based on the assumption that users of washable nappies will buy and use a total of 47.5 nappies (don't ask me how you can buy half a nappy) over the two and a half year period. The report does, however, confess that this is a MAXIMUM figure, so the report is already skewed.

It's skewed further by the sample size: 2000 users of disposable nappies were interviewed to gather data for the report, against ... er ... 117 users of washable nappies.

In fact, p.118 of the report confesses that the data for washable nappy use are pretty unreliable. SO WHY PUT OUT A REPORT BASED ON UNRELIABLE DATA? ESPECIALLY WHEN IT COSTS £200,000???

The report has already been criticised by the Women's Environmental Network. Their specific analysis of the report can be found here. Leo Hickman also demolishes the report in today's Guardian.

Let's be fair on the Environment Agency. I don't suppose they went out to prove one thing or another. I don't imagine the figures were deliberately fixed or that there was any malicious agenda to 'get' the green lobby. I just think they could have taken into account that parents who use washable nappies are more likely to be eco-conscious than disposable buyers, and therefore more inclined to use energy-efficient washing machines, and make do on fewer nappies and fewer washes than the number assumed in the report (and are less likely to tumble dry them, when the report assumes that a MINIMUM of 19% of washable households will do so).

Oh, and they did try and issue a warning to manufacturers of disposables. Tricia Henton, director of environmental protection at the EA, said: "We hope manufacturers of disposable nappies will use this study to improve the environmental performance of their products, particularly the quantities going to landfill." Yeah, right. I'm sure they'll concentrate their efforts on this, instead of trumpeting that their products have been 'exonerated' by the EA.


Blogger Me said...

I would rather describe your man Hickman's article as an 'it's not fair' snivel, rather than a 'demolition'. All the best

5:43 pm  
Blogger Oscar Wildebeest said...

On your short-lived blog, Pangloss, you stated: "The problem with trendy greenness, is that it generally involves a small sacrifice in a fairly visible and striking part of ones domestic behaviour that allows one guiltlessly to fly abroad once, twice, thrice a year (or more), drive up and down the country, and consume vastly wasteful foodstuffs flown in from thousands of miles away that fuck the planet and fuck the poor of the countries that produce them."

Rubbish. It allows no such thing.

As for 'demolition' versus 'snivel', I guess it depends on your starting perspective.

9:48 am  

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