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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Nappy wars
By Brendan O'Neill

Babies and toddlers in washable nappies
Every day UK parents bin eight million nappies, a waste mountain Real Nappy Week aims to reduce. Disposables may be an eco nightmare, but it's easy to forget how this simple invention helped liberate women from the home.

Many parents probably don't have existential crises about what kind of nappies to use. Most will opt for those which seem comfortable, don't cause too much of a dent in the bank balance, and allow their little ones to run around without a care in the world.

Yet behind the scenes, a war of words is brewing - a clash between activist parents who think it's irresponsible to use disposable nappies because they damage the environment, and those who praise disposables for allowing them to spend less time cleaning soiled children and more time on work, leisure and the brighter side of parenting.

Baby in washable nappy
It's Real Nappy Week, now in its 10th year
Events held in 65 countries
And it's supported by 80 percent of UK local councils
UK parents throw away 8m nappies a day - 3bn a year
A waste mountain it costs councils hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to deal with

Green-leaning campaigners encourage parents to use what they call "real nappies", which go in the washing machine, rather than the bin.

"They save waste and can save parents money," says Elizabeth Hartigan, of the Women's Environment Network (WEN), organisers of Real Nappy Week. She used washable nappies on her three children, and says they are the best "eco and economic option". Nor are pins an issue, having been replaced by poppers and Velcro.

Yet many mums and dads resist pressure to go washable - not because they are indifferent to the environment, but because they see disposables as a valuable invention that has freed up women's time in particular.


"The freedom for mothers brought by the disposable nappy was immense," says Deborah Jaffe, author of Ingenious Women, a book about female inventors.

[Inventor] Magdalena Laue devised a one-piece waterproof nappy made from India rubber in the 1890s
Deborah Jaffe
As a mum of two, now grown-up children, Jaffe says of the disposable: "We felt so liberated from the drudgery of smelly nappy buckets, washing lines of terry nappies and nappy pins that had been the wont of mothers before us.

"Disposables have given women much more freedom to travel, without bags of clean laundered nappies, and given them more free time at home."

Over the past 100 years and more, various women inventors strived to create a disposable nappy.

"The issue of how to improve nappies goes back a long time," says Ms Jaffe. "I write in my book about Magdalena Laue from Halle in Germany who devised a one-piece waterproof nappy made from India rubber in the 1890s.

"India rubber was a new material at the time and her invention was to prevent bed-wetting."

In the 1950s the American inventor Marion Donovan developed a re-useable waterproof covering for cloth nappies. Later, adapting shower curtains using her sewing machine, she created something called "the Boater" - a re-useable nappy with plastic snaps instead of safety pins.

The disposable was born. It gained in popularity amongst middle-class American families in the 1960s initially, who could afford to buy them, and in the population more broadly in the 70s and 80s.

For these women inventors, the desire to develop a disposable nappy was "primarily personal", says Ms Jaffe - they wanted to do more interesting things than clean up faeces.

"And out of this came the opportunity to improve women's lives."

Not easy being green

Novelist Kathy Lette says Marion Donovan is her heroine.

Kathy Lette
If I had to wash pooey nappies all day, I really would end up a few nappies short of the full pack of Pampers
Kathy Lette
"Motherhood is exhausting - and no matter how much you love your progeny, there are days when you're tempted to shove your kids back into the condom vending machine for the refund.

"If I had to wash pooey nappies all day, as well as all the other chores associated with parenthood, I really would end up a few nappies short of the full pack of Pampers."

For Nancy McDermott, a mum-of-two in New York, disposables mean that women can be more flexible with their time and more mobile in their everyday lives.

"Disposables make a huge difference," she says. "Imagine having to drag around a waterproof bag filled with soggy diapers every time you make an excursion? The weight! The smell! No thanks."

But Elizabeth Hartigan says that washables have become easier to use: "Over 90 percent of us now have access to a washing machine, and washing nappies is simple at 60C. And it can make a real difference."

Real Nappy Week may be coming to an end, but the Nappy Wars - the debate about innovation, parenting and the role of women - looks set to continue.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I did try reusable nappies, however having twin boys I found this incredibly time consuming and added to my other household chores. So my trade-off was I recycled all my other waste and composted my kitchen waste, and still do. This eases my environmental conscience a little.
Dan, Sheffield

Disposable nappies were just starting to appear when I had my daughter, but I couldn't afford them and used terry nappies. I did not however spend "all day washing nappies". What is wrong with using terry nappies when at home and disposable ones when out and about?
Janet, Pontefract

There are semi-ecological disposable nappies that are priced almost the same as other disposables but that are not used as often. Why? People aren't prepared to pay the extra 70p or so. The bottom line is people are not prepared to sacrifice anything for the environment, their priorities lie elsewhere... what a bleak future awaits us!
Carlos, Epsom

We've used real nappies on both our children. The only real problem is that you have to buy trousers that fit around the slightly larger bottom that results from a real nappy. It's worked out much cheaper than using disposables all the time, as well as decreasing the volume of rubbish we throw out.
Tim Granger, Cambridge, UK

Disposing of human waste in domestic refuse is illegal.
Mark H, York

It is not illegal to put faeces in domestic refuse. The only 'human watse' not allowed is graded clinical waste (syringes, blood-soiled dressings etc). Nappies and incontinence pads are perfectly acceptable.
Jo, Ipswich

As a father who does a lot of nappy changes but has only a limited time to spend with the kids after work, I cherish the freedom that disposables give. Wasahbles (for now) are an imposition I feel it's unfair to impose. Like the idea of cheaper bio-degradable though.
Ciaran, Dublin

I tried real nappies first time round 2 years ago, and found them bulky, leaky and too much work with trying to master breastfeeding. Really I'm not superwoman. I'm pregnant again and hope to give them another go now I'm more confident. However I wonder how much impact washing nappies has on the environment.
Morrison, UK

There was a study last year which assessed the options and concluded that disposables were no worse for the environment, because of the chemicals used to clean soiled nappies and the energy used for all the extra washing loads.
Sally, London

Ah, but that was a flawed study - of the people sampled, only a tiny fraction used washables, and the researchers based their figures on a 90C wash. But those using washable nappies are advised to wash at 60C now. The Guardian - of course - did a comprehensive debunking.
Isabella, Sheffield

I too saw this report. As it contradict my understanding, I read it with interest. I found many reasons that my use was much better. I do not wash at 90C - there's no need - I do not use 12 nappies a day, I do not presoak or use conditioner - again no need. Thus my impact for real nappy use was far below their stated impact and that of disposables
Craig Garvie, Edinburgh

I would like to see EU legislation that compelled nappy manufacturers to work towards creating bio-degradable nappies. These exist already, but are expensive because they are only a niche product.
Liz Johnson, London

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