By Rob Borruso
Having recently wrecked my environmental credentials by having a second child my world is again one of nappies and sleepless nights. Of course we’re told the most sustainable nappy is a reusable one so they’re hanging up everywhere at home, which got me thinking…
Now, I’m not going to use this blog to do a life cycle analysis of nappies but rather to show just how difficult they can be and include things you’d never think of. The case against the disposable nappy revolves around two points; the resources consumed to make them and the space they take up in landfill. The former I’m not going to question but the latter….. I’ve got some issues.
Over 80% of the weight of a used disposable nappy is water which, because the ‘damage’ caused by land-filling domestic waste is still measured quantitatively not qualitatively, appears to be more of a problem than it actually is. I.e. one tonne of water (which is inert) is counted as having the same disposal issues as one tonne of everything else that ends up in wheelie bins. Whereas, from a long term environmental perspective it really isn’t. So the damage caused but putting nappies in a wheelie bin really isn’t the same as putting in plastic coated paper- but is, nevertheless, not desirable.
Especially as there’s an eco alternative, the reusable nappy right? Well maybe. Reusable nappies do consume lots of resources, some obvious, and some not so obvious. Of course there’s the water, energy and chemicals involved in washing the things, but in my opinion these do not outweigh the issues associated with disposables. But then come the less obvious issues, firstly drying (which I’ll return to later) and then there’s washing machine wear. A baby’s worth of reusable nappies will likely generate about 300 additional loads which is pretty close to the scrap life of a modern, (who bothers to get machines repaired?) washing machine. So now in my view we’re pretty close to there being very little difference between disposable and reusable nappies and the argument starts to boil down to which is more precious, landfill space or water and energy.
With the case for reusables now weakened it wouldn’t take much to make the throwaway option better. This is where the huge issues around drying come into play. Nappies are difficult to dry – they absorb a lot of water they wouldn’t work otherwise. Therefore, drying them artificially, either in a tumble dryer (at least 2kg CO2 per load) or over radiators (which consumes just as much energy and can lead to condensation problems) can wipe out their environmental credentials. This is where that most overlooked but massively effective eco-gadget comes into play – the washing line. Even in my west of Scotland home we can get most of our washing ‘out’ on the line. Do architects and especially planners give much thought to this most cost effective energy saving device – no! Much greater effort should be made to encourage their provision and use. I know this is easier said than done. Experiences with communal drying areas (which CfSH does give credit for) that have been less than positive prove that, but really, is designing a washing line facility beyond the skill of humanity?
The point is planning can and should influence behaviour and its behavioural change that is the key to reducing resource consumption not £600m of PV subsidies given to the well off. The system that dictates the houses we should all live in seems, to my mind, to be far too focused on the wrong things; like whether the right shade of grey for the fake slate roof tiles occupies as much time as ensuring dwellings are suitable for a world in which oil is $200 a barrel. The home owners of the future will be much more concerned about their ability to dry clothes (and nappies) or grow some vegetables rather than the exact colour of their brick mortar.