If Henry VIII had used disposable nappies, they wouldn’t have decomposed yet

By - Tuesday 27th January, 2015

Grace Onions, co-founder of Croydon Real Nappy Network, explains why she chose to work for change from the bottom up

Photo by Audrey, used under Creative Commons licence.

“If Henry VIII had used disposable nappies, they would still be festering away somewhere, not yet decomposed.”

When I read this statement recently, it brought home to me what my work with the Croydon Real Nappy Network, which I co-founded in 2006 along with Kat Pond, is all about. (Kat left us in 2012 and was replaced by Sarah Malik). Whilst I’m familiar with the statistics on the huge quantities of disposable nappies thrown away each year (about three billion per year in the UK alone), this snippet makes it all seem real. It helps me remember why we had to do something here in Croydon, our local area, to play our part in a wider change that’s badly needed.

Around 90% of these disposable nappies end up in landfill sites and will remain there for untold future generations. This is a serious problem as landfills are a major contributor to global warming, continually releasing methane gas for decades after they are no longer in use. And incineration is no better; everyone for miles around can breathe in the dioxins and other pollutants that result from burning plastics (and other things!).

Over a period of two and a half years, cloth nappies save more than £450

As well as the plastics and adhesives that you might expect to find in disposable nappies, there are also super-absorbent chemicals and paper pulp. You can read more here. Real nappies are made mostly of natural fabrics: cotton, bamboo, hemp and wool, along with fleece and minky. A full cost comparison between reusable and disposable nappies is available on the Nappy Lady’s website which looks at the entire life-cycle of each product. In summary though, changing your baby six times a day over a period of two and a half years (the average time a child is using nappies) saves parents using cloth nappies more than £450.

Furthermore, these nappies can then be used for subsequent children or sold, making additional savings. Not to mention how much better it is for the environment. For those put off by visions of slaving over the washing machine and pegging out interminable lines of nappies, there are now nappy laundering services springing up everywhere. From personal experience, however, it was never as bad as I imagined and added less than fifteen minutes to the whole wash-day routine. I was happy with this as each nappy on the line was one less disposable in landfill, and that encouraged me even more.

Along with the environmental aspect of waste and its disposal, the other main reason I became interested in cloth nappies was a nasty chemical called phthalate. It is used in the production of PVC among other things and is reported to be an endocrine disruptor and carcinogen, again among other things. It concerned me that I could not find out if these chemicals were present in any part of a disposable nappy, an item that would be on my baby’s skin for over two years. There was also the much debated issue of increased body temperature, particularly relating to boys, as the testes need to be cooler than internal organs. Unsatisfied by information available at the time, I chose what I considered to be a more natural option for my children and I’ve never regretted it.

We’ve provided 200 Croydon families with a real nappies starter pack worth £30

It’s wonderful that so many parents are now choosing to use cloth nappies. However, it’s sometimes difficult to get started as even a little research reveals a huge array of different products, each with its own associated (and sometimes confusing) language – stuffables, boosters, liners, nippas etc. As an enthusiastic environmentalist, I like to share my knowledge and experience of cloth nappies with new and soon-to-be mums and dads, as well as anyone else who’s interested, so that they are aware of alternative options to disposable nappies and are able to make a more informed choice.

With the kind support down the years of Grassroots Grants, the Mayor of London, Veolia and LUSH, we’ve provided 200 Croydon families with a real nappies starter pack worth £30. Unfortunately, the scheme is currently on hold whilst we seek new funding. If you, or anyone you know, can help us in this, please do get in touch; you’ll be doing the environment, parents, and babies a great favour!

At Croydon Real Nappy Network, we offer advice, support and low cost loans so not only can parents actually see and feel the nappies, they can also try them out in the comfort of their own home, risk-free. We offer support to anyone who needs help with their nappies and can arrange home visits. We run monthly information sessions at Croydon University Hospital on the first Wednesday of each month and occasionally other sessions elsewhere. We also have a lively Facebook group which you can find here.

Grace Onions

Grace Onions

Grace is a known recyclopath who has lived in Croydon for 20 years. Her first foray into the voluntary sector was with Croydon Real Nappy Network, and from that developed a passion to promote any and all reusable products over single-use disposable items. It's nice to see the media finally catching up! The EcoCitizen awarded her the title of Recycler of the Year in 2008 and she made the national final shortlist for the World Wildlife Fund’s Hidden Heroes award in 2013. Current dream for Croydon would be to have the water fountains reinstalled in all our parks - reduce plastic bottle use.

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  • Anne Giles

    I am glad I never had babies! I can remember when my mother was ill having to change my baby brother’s nappies several times a day. Put me right off.

  • PolarDog

    Great article. We saved ££££ by avoiding disposables. No nappy rash either.

  • SlayerKat

    Great article

  • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

    “This is a serious problem as landfills are a major contributor to global
    warming, continually releasing methane gas for decades after they are
    no longer in use”

    Ignorance thy name is environmental activist. The methane gas created is part of the normal biogeochemical carbon cycle surely? It is not extra to the carbon cycle as is the case of burned fossil fuel from millions of years ago. We’re in cows farting territory here? Where such is the paranoia about CO2 that natural parts of the carbon cycle process are branded as in some way perverse or “adding” CO2 when no more CO2 than is usual has been created?

    If the problem is that they don’t degenerate to methane because of the polybonded chain molecules that is a reasonable fear – but you can’t have it both ways. You have condemned the nappies both for degenerating (which is natural) and not degenerating properly (which is not). This is a contradiction.

    Also “there are now nappy laundering services springing up everywhere” surely every time you boil or hot wash a traditional cloth nappy you are using a lot of energy. The energy used to boil the water comes from power stations comes from fossil fuel. It’s a basic law of physics that you don’t get something for nothing. There is no “no energy” solution to this problem but I would guess that constantly boiling cloth nappies creates more CO2 than using disposable ones does. Although we would have to factor in the energy costs of manufacturing both to get a true picture.

    Also I think it’s fair to point out there were only 4 million people during Henry VIII’s reign so the stuff they threw away that was not biodegradable wasn’t as much of a problem as it is today with 63 million.