Anna Burnside: We’ve had our fill of the nappy mountain

WHEN my daughter was born, and I was flushed with hormones, optimism and ignorance, I vowed not to use disposable nappies.

I would, I declared grandly, spare my child the heavily marketed, chemical-filled, corporate absorbent paperware experience, worn once then condemned to landfill.

Cushies, an American brand of washable nappies with their own waterproof outer layer, were ordered. A nappy bucket with a lid was, with some difficulty, sourced and purchased. Bicarbonate of soda, in which the soiled Cushies would be soaked before washing, was bought by the kilo.

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At first it worked pretty well. The new Cushies were soft and pliable. Inserting the baby into them was not difficult. Washing and drying them in the depths of the Scottish winter, however, was. In the absence of a tumble drier or warm, fragrant breeze, damp Cushies took over the house. They emerged from the radiator or clothes horse stiff and crunchy.

Still I persevered. The health visitor tried not to suck her teeth. I started sneaking in the occasional packet of Pampers for use on outings and holidays. Babies generate enough luggage without carrying a load of festering nappies in the bottom of the pram.

It finally fell to bits when I went back to work full time. The childminder, while delightful in every other way, was not the kind of woman to be bothering with bicarbonate of soda. With some relief I packed up the Cushies and passed them on to some other enthusiastic newbie. I may even have put them in a giant Pampers box.

Disposables are, in many ways, great. They have liberated women from the tyranny of the nappy bucket and babies from the dragging heft of sodden cotton. (My own mother still likes to recall the terrible weals caused by “zubbies” - my name for the rubber pants worn over cloth nappies to prevent leaks - chafing on my fat thighs.) Once soiled they are put in the bin and become somebody else’s problem.

And that is where it all falls down. One million tonnes of nappies are taken to landfill every year in the UK. Made from a complex mix of plastic, fibres, glue and chemicals, the gloomiest estimate is that they take 500 years to decompose. While rotting they release methane, one of the gasses responsible for global warming. A heavy price to pay for convenience.

Now 36,000 homes in four council areas – North Lanarkshire, Fife, Stirling, Perth and Kinross – are to be offered an alternative to washing their own nappies or suffering from agonising environmental guilt. Zero Waste Scotland is funding a pilot scheme to recycle disposables: nappies from these areas will be bagged, collected and trucked to a plant in West Bromwich where they will be cleaned and have their constituent parts separated out. Instead of putrefying in the dump these Pampers will have another life as cardboard, fencing and roof tiles.

This is such a fantastic, and obvious, idea that it is shameful that it has taken so long to happen. Dirty nappies are usually separated from other household waste anyway, often in a terrifying gadget that immediately shrink-wraps the offending item in plastic. (I never got the hang of these.)

It is particularly relevant in nurseries and hospitals, where waste is managed anyway, to send nappies (and incontinence pads, and sanitary towels, which can all be treated using the same process) to West Bromwich to start their new life.

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Knowaste, the Canadian company which does the actual recycling, appears to be run by men in suits who talk earnestly about “absorbent hygiene products (AHPs)”. They are all about helping local authorities avoid landfill tax increases. There is nothing cuddly about what they are doing, it’s all polymers and composite materials and how to turn dirty nappies into fillers for the road-building industry while making a profit.

This is all good. A few well-meaning, breast-feeding, organic-puréeing individuals like myself messing around with buckets for a few months is not going to make a dent in CO2 emissions. Laundering services, where dirty cloth nappies are whisked away for industrial cleaning and replaced with a pile of fluffy fresh ones every week, are great. As are those committed individuals who pay over the (already considerable) odds to buy less-toxic disposables.

But unless there is a mainstream, convenient alternative the vast majority of parents will carry on buying whatever disposables are on special offer this week, and binning them without a second thought.

Make recycling nappies as easy and socially acceptable as putting empties in the bottle bank, however, and a lot more people will start doing it. There will always be a hardcore who think it is their god-given right to put their unwanted personal debris in a black bag and let someone else worry about it. Most of us, when helped and encouraged, realise it is both bonkers and unsustainable to keep filling holes in the ground with expensive and salvageable materials which may have only been on a baby’s bum for five minutes.

If Knowaste’s earnest blokes can persuade councils to collect nappies (and other AHPs as they prefer to call them, not being the kind of chaps to talk about shitty nappies, incontinence pants or fanny pads in polite society) and turn them into roof tiles, good luck to them. Back in the rubbish dump, it’s too late for my daughter’s Pampers. They still have 486-odd years left on the clock.