En­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact be­gins in the cra­dle

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Investments - Keith Orchi­son

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

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