The year 2020 provided plenty of opportunity for reflection on many aspects of our lives, and for some this included greater consideration and thought about our shopping and consumption habits. ‘Lockdown’ (part one at least) saw lots of people turn their hand at baking their own bread or amateur gardeners with access to their own green space growing their own fruit and vegetables. Other people began to shop more locally and independently to help support small businesses who were struggling amiss a collapse in the footfall that they had previously relied upon to bring in trade particularly around the summer and Christmas period. During this time, as a new parent what I personally noticed was the explosion of WAHM (work at home mum, or parent) ‘kitchen table’ businesses selling sustainable and eco-friendly ‘green’ products for use with baby but also in the home. In particular it seems that the panic-buying of items such as toilet rolls and disposable nappies prompted some people to consider alternatives to these throw away items such as cloth/reusable nappies and other cloth-based items that could help them decrease their waste but also (and perhaps crucially in those early months) reduce the need for additional trips to the shops.
For the un-inducted, cloth nappies are simply reusable and washable nappies which are often made from sustainable and natural fibres which, with a little bit of care, can be used dozens of times and across multiple children. It is estimated that one child can easily use in excess of 5,000 nappies between birth and potty training whereas by contrast only 20-25 cloth nappies can be needed for the same child. For many, the notion of reusable nappies can summon up images of stewing nappies in a pail or the heavy smell of Milton and disinfectant, whereas modern cloth nappies are often eye catching, bright and simple to use.
This year, particularly since the early spring I have witnessed an explosion of ‘eco shops’ opening online often based out of people’s homes selling reusable nappies, reusable wipes as well as cloth sanitary pads, ‘family cloth’ (reusable toilet roll), beeswax wraps and other sustainable/multi use items as alternatives to the disposable single use plastics that we have become accustomed. These businesses, in some cases, have emerged out of parents being furloughed from work or the loss of already precarious employment due to the pandemic and allow parents (though, usually mothers) time to work flexibly alongside the demands of their children and family. These small business, either as stockists of reusable ‘green’ items or as the makers or designers of them, encourage parents as consumers to ask questions about their sustainability credentials, including issues of traceability such as where the raw materials are sourced, how and where their items are manufactured, by whom, the working conditions, rates of pay and job security of employees, how the items are transported (rail/plane/boat) and to be aware of so called ‘green washing’.
These new businesses in the ‘green economy’ are perhaps well needed; it is estimated that over 700,000 tons of nappies go to landfill every year, with over three billion nappies thrown away yearly in the UK alone, accounting for 2-3% of all household waste. It is commonly accepted that that it would take 200-500 years for a disposable nappy to biodegrade and the decomposition of nappies can cause groundwater and soil contamination due to the leaching of organic components. Disposable nappies also contribute to landfill gases such as methane and CO2, both of which are potent greenhouse gases which exacerbate climate change. These single use nappies along with other mixed plastics are commonly exported to countries in the global south, particularly South-East Asia where what can be, is recycled often unsafely and to low standards, and the rest incinerated or left in landfill to leach into the environment. By contrast, reusable cloth nappies use 20 times less land for production of raw material and require three times less energy to make, can be used across multiple children and then sold on or donated once the user has no need for them. Furthermore, the recent boom in cloth usage has seen a growth in the number of small, independent and homemade manufacturers providing creative outlets and forms of income for their family.
The evidence is clear, disposable nappies and wipes whilst convenient for parents have been an environmental disaster, however data show that if only 20% of parents using such disposable items switched to reusables, the amount of waste that could be prevented in the EU-28 would be more than 1 million tonnes each year. Unfortunately, awareness of cloth nappies is relatively low amongst both parents and professionals (doctors, health visitors, midwives etc), and unlike the disposable nappy manufacturers, the producers of real nappies do not have deep pockets to be able to promote them heavily. Cloth nappies can be very difficult to find in the shops, meaning parents often have to buy nappies online and spend money on products they’ve not physically seen or had someone show them how to use. This is where ‘cloth nappy libraries’ are invaluable as they allow people to hire kits for a discretionary fee to find out what works for them and receive support during and beyond the hire period. Late last year Leicester Council and DMU, via the DMULocal programme, provided funding to the newly re-invigorated Leicester Cloth Nappy Library; a not for profit volunteer run organisation which provides information and support about using cloth to residents across the city and county. With the support provided by DMU and the Council, CRR members Kylie Baldwin and Sasha Loyal have rebranded the library, expanded the kits available to hire and created a suite of ‘Covid-secure’ resources for use by clients wishing to hire a kit. They have also run online tutorials about how to use cloth and recruited further volunteers both within but also outside of DMU to carry on delivering the library in the community in to 2021.
The support DMU has provided to the library is reflective not only of its commitment to sustainability at a local level but also inter/nationally. Indeed, DMU is the only higher education institute in the UK to be a global hub for one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs). The UNSDGs were introduced by the United Nations in 2010 with the aim of improving the lives of millions of people by 2030 and include a commitment to 17 different goals including on: sustainable cities and communities, climate action, life below water and responsible consumption and production. As such the activities of the nappy library, led by Kylie Baldwin but with the support of staff and students across several different faculties, intersects and contributes to many of these goals. Alongside DMULocal, the Leicester Cloth Nappy Library (LCNL) will be working in the community to raise awareness of reusable alternatives to disposable items and bringing to people’s attention ways in which it is possible to make more sustainable and environmentally friendly decisions as consumers. The LCNL is currently delivering online demonstrations via Zoom and are continuing to offer kits for hire available via contactless collection. To learn more about the nappy library including how to hire a kit or to volunteer visit the library website www.leicesternappylibrary.org.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are outside Leicester(shire) you can find your closest nappy library here.