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The BBC's Elaine Parke
"There is an alternative to disposable nappies"
 real 56k

Monday, 23 April, 2001, 03:11 GMT 04:11 UK
NHS urged to promote washable nappies
Three infants in nappies WEN
To dispose or not to dispose . . . there's the rub
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Environmental groups in the UK are urging the National Health Service to introduce a "real nappy policy".

They want the NHS to promote the use of washable nappies, rather than disposable ones.

The Women's Environmental Network (WEN) is concerned that disposable nappies consume huge quantities of raw materials and may be harmful to infants' health.

WEN believes used nappies disposed of in landfill sites may take centuries to decompose.

It says all parents in the UK who attend ante-natal classes are shown how to put a disposable nappy on an infant, rather than a washable one.

'Midwives need training'

Usually, WEN says, parents wanting to use real nappies in hospital are unable to do so because there is no provision for washing them.

Among the elements of its proposed real nappy policy are:

  • A training scheme to educate midwives in the benefits and use of renewable nappies.
  • The introduction of renewable nappy demonstrations in ante-natal classes.
  • The provision of renewable nappies in children's wards, neonatal and maternity units, and for adult incontinence in UK hospitals.
Baby in nappy WEN
Disposable makers deny any health risk
WEN and other campaigners are worried above all at the environmental damage caused by disposable nappies.

WEN says: "Decomposing disposable nappies emit noxious methane gas. It will take 200 to 500 years for a disposable nappy to decompose, leaving a legacy to your children's grandchildren.

'60 times more waste'

"The production of disposables uses 3.5 times more energy, 8.3 times more non-renewable resources, and 90 times more renewable resources than real nappies.

"They produce 2.3 times more waste water and 60 times more solid waste than real nappies."

WEN goes on to say: "Tributyl tin (TBT), a chemical compound which is known to disrupt sex hormones, has been found in disposable nappies on sale in the UK.

"TBT shouldn't be in any houshold product, let alone something that is being worn next to babies' skin."

The campaigners deplore the expense involved in both buying and disposing of more than nine million disposable nappies daily in the UK.

They say the annual cost of getting rid of more than a million tonnes of disposables is 40m.

WEN says: "Savings of up to 600 can be made on the cost of disposable nappies for a first child. This increases with second and subsequent children, where the nappies can be re-used."


Gina Purrmann of the Real Nappy Association told BBC News Online: "My chief concern when I was pregnant was the cost of disposables.

"Then I began wondering whether I would want to sit day by day in something made of chemicals, plastic and paper. And I decided I wouldn't.

"Disposables do have a place in our modern lifestyle, but using cloth nappies you win every way.

"I go out of my way to avoid nappies containing a superabsorber made of sodium polyacrylate.

Landfill site BBC
Most disposables end up underground
"It's crystalline, but turns into a gel on contact with water, or in this case urine. It was linked to toxic shock in tampons, and was removed from them in 1985."

The Absorbent Hygiene Products Manufacturers' Association (AHPMA) represents disposable nappy makers.


It says disposables are a healthy and hygienic choice, and believes the environmental arguments are finely balanced.

Its Nappy Information Service says: "Neither disposable nor reusable nappies can claim environmental superiority.

"Used disposable nappies are largely disposed of in landfill sites, whereas washable nappies consume considerable quantities of electricity, water, detergents and sanitising chemicals."

"Before any material, including superabsorbents, is used in making a disposable nappy it is extensively and rigorously tested for safety."

Photos of floral nappies courtesy of Women's Environmental Network

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See also:

25 Sep 00 | Health
Nappy 'link to infertility'
17 Apr 99 | UK
The bottom line on nappies
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