Irrationality About Diapers in the UK

Proving once again that irrationality and science cover-ups are not the exclusive province of the religious right, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has "instructed civil servants not to publicise the conclusions of the £50,000 nappy research project and to adopt a “defensive” stance towards its conclusions."

The report found that using washable nappies, hailed by councils throughout Britain as a key way of saving the planet, have a higher carbon footprint than their disposable equivalents unless parents adopt an extreme approach to laundering them.

To reduce the impact of cloth nappies on climate change parents would have to hang wet nappies out to dry all year round, keep them for years for use on younger children, and make sure the water in their washing machines does not exceed 60C.

The conclusions will upset proponents of real nappies who have claimed they can help save the planet.

Restricted Whitehall documents, seen by The Sunday Times, show that the government is so concerned by the “negative laundry options” outlined in the report, it has told its media managers not to give its conclusions any publicity.

The report found that while disposable nappies used over 2½ years would have a global warming, impact of 550kg of CO2 reusable nappies produced 570kg of CO2 on average. But if parents used tumble dryers and washed the reusable nappies at 90C, the impact could spiral to . 993kg of CO2. A Defra spokesman said the government was shelving plans for future research on nappies.

It’s just amazing to me how disinformation and radicalism gets in the way of truly green policy. The very idea that some "consumer product" was actually greener than the old way of doing things was so offensive it was seen as some kind of sacrilege against green dogma.

We see the same potential for confusion cropping up in the mad rush toward "eating local." Sometimes eating local (with certain foods, particularly fresh produce) makes sense. But depending on weight, bulk, and distance, some other foods can be shipped economically with a low carbon footprint. Much more analysis is needed of all "green" practices to make sure they don’t just worsen the very problem they’re trying to solve. Radical environmentalism can be as much of a barrier to rationality as religion. People say "consume less" like a mantra, when they should be thinking "close the loops." No matter how much less people consume, if they do it unsustainably they’re just delaying the problem, not eliminating it.

Now we know we can and should use disposable diapers. The emphasis should shift to figuring out how to make their manufacture carbon-neutral, and including them in the recyclable waste stream. All of us came into this world needing diapers, and there’s no way anyone can "use less." You need what you need. And there are more babies alive today than ever before.

When it comes to sustainability, there is no substitute for rationality and careful study.

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Comments (11 comments)

TW / October 20th, 2008, 11:55 am / #1

Execellent post and I couldn’t agree with you more. I had a long running argument with my wife about economic and environmental benefits of washable nappies - it took a year of our own “experiment” but in the end I won and we went back to disposables for the subsequent little monsters.

It is truly astounding that DEFRA are simply going to abandon the research because it hasn’t met the answers it wants and as you say is a bit of an insight into how we are sometimes blinded to what is really best for the environment.

Frost / October 20th, 2008, 12:17 pm / #2

Don’t like the result so pretend we didn’t ask the question. Yeah that’s the religious approach all right.

Green ranting, again » Why Dont You Blog? / October 20th, 2008, 3:33 pm / #3

[...] A Black Sun Journal post about the UK’s government’s cynical irrationality about diapers (that’s nappies to us) sparked this rant about other “green” things that turn out to be less than ecologically logical. [...]

Wilma / November 8th, 2008, 11:59 pm / #4

As far as disposables go, there are alternatives that are less harmful. Seventh Generation is an option (have used them on my kiddo). G-diapers are even better, they’re biodegradable and the liners are flushed in the toilet.

Also, this only looks at the carbon footprint and that’s one part of the equation. One huge issue with diapers is the space they take up in landfills and the fact that human feces ends up in those same landfills as well, in huge quantities.

You’re absolutely right about the silly irrationality though.

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