It’s a sobering thought when you consider that the first-ever disposable nappy is probably still mouldering away in a landfill somewhere.
Plastic-coated, full of absorbent fibres and laden with human waste, it’s estimated that disposables could take up to 500 years to break down completely.
That realisation pulled Canberra mum Emma Black up quickly when she had her daughter. She’s now among a small but growing number of people who want to challenge the assumption that cloth nappies are just too hard to use.
Emma founded Canberra Cloth Bums, which runs information sessions through the Canberra Environment Centre and new parent groups, and holds regular ‘Nappycino’ events. These are organised by parents on a voluntary basis in their free time and the group welcomes anyone who is interested in knowing more.
“I started with cloth nappies when my daughter was five months old,” Emma says.
“I literally knew nobody else who was doing it. I suppose it was a combination of wanting to reduce our environmental footprint and realising how huge the impact of disposables was on our rubbish, and thinking that cloth nappies were a nicer option for me.”
Her concerns are borne out by the fact that in the last ACT kerbside domestic waste audit, disposable nappies (and all they might contain) made up 6.1 per cent of our waste stream.
“A lot of people don’t realise you are not meant to put poo in the bin. It’s on the packages but often in really tiny letters,” Emma says.
She’s also insistent that this isn’t about being the nappy police.
“I started with my daughter in cloth when we were at home together, then transitioned to feeling more confident about cloth when we went out and overnight.
“Disposables can definitely have a place, but I want to give people support to have a fresh look at how much easier cloth is these days,” Emma says.
The move is made easier by the fact that nappies have changed a lot in recent years. They are easier to put together, there’s no folding and pinning and washing systems have also changed too.
“It takes me about an hour per week to get the nappies done and the new dry pailing systems are really effective at minimising smells,” Emma says.
“When I first looked at it, there were family members who were totally convinced I wouldn’t do it for more than a month – my mother told me not to bother investing too much money in it because I’d never last. There is resistance and that’s fine, it’s not for everyone. But it’s great for people to see cloth as more accessible.”
One of the objections that’s often raised about the newer varieties of cloth is that the cost per nappy is high. But Emma points out that while the initial investment is greater than disposables, the nappies last for years and can be passed on to younger siblings or friends’ children.
If you use cloth nappies full-time over around two-and-a-half years and factor in water and electricity, Emma says the costs are likely to be between $450 and $750, while disposables will cost between $1000 and $1600 for the same time period, depending on whether you choose basic or more expensive brands.
In June this year, Brisbane City Council introduced a Sustainable Nappy Cashback scheme which offers parents the chance to win cash draws each month when they enter proof of their cloth purchases, and Emma would like to see a similar rebate operating in the ACT to encourage cloth purchases.
“Even people who want to use cloth can get overwhelmed because it’s so uncommon these days,” she says. “Canberra Cloth Bums is trying to take the anxiety out of it.
“In this new world of Keep Cups and reusable shopping bags, I think modern cloth nappies should hold a bigger place.”
You can find Canberra Cloth Bums on Facebook. To find out when their next information session is, email email@example.com. The Canberra Environment Centre also has a cloth nappy library where you can check out the different options before buying.