Environmental impact begins in the cradle
THE battle to reduce our impact on the environment starts early — with Australian babies contributing two million disposable nappies a day to landfill. With 95 per cent of Australian parents currently using disposable nappies, this adds up to 800 million a year being thrown away, a headache for municipalities managing landfills.
It is estimated that nappies now make up 1 per cent of national landfill — totalling 220,000 tonnes annually — and about 2 per cent of domestic waste.
Nappy supply is a big business in a country where 260,000 babies are born each year and there are some two million children under the age of five. A child gets through thousands of nappies before being toilet- trained.
For most parents cost is a key factor and, with compostable nappies costing almost double conventional disposable ones, the choice in the supermarket is straightforward.
For more environmentally aware parents, the complexities of eco- friendly purchases — which include consideration of the greenhouse gases emitted in manufacture — are almost as big as the extra cost burden.
One popular eco- nappy made from paper mulch and compostable is only available from Germany — so the greenhouse gases emitted in transporting them across the world have to be factored in, too.
Making nappies biodegradable does not resolve the environmental issues: manufacturer Kimberly- Clark, which claims to have reduced the bulk of its nappies by 50 per cent in 10 years, points out that landfill sites are engineered to be stable and low in moisture:
In Australia landfills are so dry and compact they tend to mummify their contents and, as a result, nothing much breaks down — even newspapers that are 100 per cent degradable above- ground remain intact and legible for decades in landfills. This means a biodegradable nappy in landfill is not normally given the chance to biodegrade.’’
Anyway, Kimberly- Clark says on its website, nappy wastes are only one part in 10,000 of Australia’s solid wastes.
In past years, the nappy debate for parents came down to a choice between cloth and disposables, but nothing is straightforward in the 21st century environment.
To ensure minimum environmental impact, parents discover that cloth nappy users need to wash organic cotton nappies in cold water using 100 per cent biodegradable, phosphate- free detergent and an oxygenbased bleach. The green purists argue that only lemon juice should be used.
Washable nappies today are certainly a far cry from the huge squares of terry cloth from the past, folded into triangles, pinned, and protected by plastic pants. But they need a high standard of washing to remain hygienic, and manufacturers recommend a regular tumble dry to keep them soft and fluffy. How good is that for the environment? Not very, says the British Environment Agency, which has just devoted a 200- page report to the topic of baby needs. The need is real, because British babies contribute 690,000 tonnes of nappies to landfill each year.
The agency’s conclusion: For the nappy systems studied, there is no significant difference between them with respect to environmental impacts. No approach is clearly better or worse for the environment.’’
Not surprisingly, time- poor, budgetstressed mums and dads tend to take the nearest and cheapest disposable off the supermarket shelves — or to buy them in bulk at even lower cost from warehouses. They are going to need disposables regardless if their toddlers are in Australian childcare — centres won’t accept cloth nappies.
Wrestling with reality rather than the best possible outcome, Planet Ark is campaigning for disposable nappy manufacturers to improve the environmental performance of through weight reduction and use of more eco- friendly materials, such as bio- plastics made from plant- based resources.
Meanwhile, the PR battle for Australian parents’ attention in nappy choice tends to be waged over the internet with thousands of entries available to talk up the merits of environmental products, including nappies made from corn or bamboo.
Parents, of course, could join the nappyfree baby craze that has popped up in America. Advocates argue that babies don’t need nappies at all, because they can communicate their elimination needs through vocal and body signals’’. Parents just need to attune themselves to the little one’s requirements — and presumably live outdoors.
Nappies: Making a difference