Whitehall whispers shouldn’t always be taken at face value. But if the experience of the past 18 months of haphazard government policy has told us anything, it’s that policy ideas are often stress-tested through leaks and gossip. The recent rumours about a tax on disposable nappies might have been shot down by Downing Street on 31 August, but warring Westminster sources all agree that the move to push parents in an eco direction is very real.
Back in 2018 Michael Gove’s comments at the Conservative Party Conference sparked a similar will-they, won’t-they pantomime over disposable nappies. When asked whether the Tory plans to attack single-use plastics such as straws and bags would include a nappy ban, Gove replied that he “mustn’t make too much news” but confirmed the government planned to “identify, not quite item-by-item but sector-by-sector, those areas where we do need to take a different approach”.
After the ensuing backlash, Gove was forced to tweet the dreaded “I did not say that” clarification. But the bid to ban, tax or otherwise drive out disposable nappies is alive and well in Westminster.
In December 2018 the SNP’s David Linden introduced his Nappies (Environmental Standards) Bill to the House of Commons. It proposed to police the way in which nappies could be advertised to “tackle the misinformation peddled” by nappy companies claiming to be environmentally friendly. His suggestion was that parents (mainly mothers, let’s face it) need government intervention to help them make the right choices. According to some politicians, unless women get guidance on the evils of disposable nappies, we’ll be a menace to the planet and to ourselves.
When women are supposed to find the time to feel smug about their eco credentials after spending the day and night exclusively breastfeeding and washing out nappies is another matter. There seems to be little consideration among nappy-banning eco activists of the cost of human labour involved in saving the planet.
Linden and others are currently attempting to add amendments to the Environment Bill making its way through parliament to include measures to promote reusable nappies and phase out single-use through advertising bans and local council schemes. Speaking in the Lords, the Green Party’s Baroness Bennett cited research including the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2021 report on single-use nappies to prove the need to do something about this apparent scourge.
But these eco warriors rarely like to acknowledge that the reason so many families use disposable products is not because they don’t care about the planet, but because they are cheap, effective and useful. They give you more time to play with your bouncing baby while spending less time having to worry about leaks and laundry piles. The costs of reusable nappies – in terms of time and effort – overwhelmingly outweigh the rather marginal benefits.
Even by the UN’s own admission, reusable nappies are only more eco-friendly than their disposable counterparts if parents refrain from boil-washing or tumble-drying. Its 2021 report states doubtfully: “Reusable nappies when washed so as to minimise water use (eg, in a fully loaded, modern washing machine) and in an energy-efficient manner have lower environmental impacts than single-use nappies.” Hardly a strong environmental endorsement, especially given that for hygiene reasons soiled nappies are generally washed on a high heat separately from other laundry.
A 2008 Environment Agency report, meanwhile, worked out that the average family in the UK gets through 4.16 nappies a day. Air-drying around 30 nappies a week might be feasible in the two weeks of sunshine the UK enjoys each year, but eco-minded parents would inevitably end up resorting to the tumble-drier the rest of the time. Add to that the fact that newborn babies and two-year-olds are very different sizes, and the logic of buying new reusable nappies every few months starts to lose its eco shine.
The reality is that the discussion about eco measures too often focuses on the planet instead of people, and ignores all the ways progress in other areas risks being undone. In 2016 the Office for National Statistics estimated the cost of unpaid work in the home, with “laundry alone… valued at about £90bn” that year. The majority of that unpaid work is done by women. We should think twice before sacrificing gender equality gains to the green agenda.
There is a real aversion to the importance of ease and comfort that single-use brings, especially for women. Tampons, for example, allow women to do anything while on their period – a keen swimmer like me would be lost without them – but they too have been in the eco firing line as sustainable menstrual products are lauded. My granny, who used to tell us about the shame of having to wash out rags in rural Sligo, can’t get her head around the concept of period pants – the idea that women would want to go back to the days of scrubbing their underwear instead of using disposable sanitary products makes no sense to her.
When it comes to policing women’s choices, the miserablism of eco-measures seems to have no limits. A 2019 Stylist article suggested that women rent their maternity clothes to have an “eco-friendly pregnancy”. Better yet, the organisation BirthStrike encourages women to forgo having babies at all, as the farting, burping, resource-consuming bundles of joy are a drain on the planet even when they’re wearing hand-me-down reusable nappies.
Protecting the planet is important for all of us, but we should resist moves to sacrifice the quality of human life in favour of quick-fix desires of lowering carbon output. Context is key; it is women who still wipe the arses and buy the nappies of tomorrow’s generation, and women who still do the majority of housework. The idea of men like Gove and Linden consigning us to more labour-intensive methods should spark the outrage of any feminist.
Oh, and we shouldn’t have to rely on whispers from the wood-panelled rooms of Westminster to find out what undemocratic green policy is next on the government’s agenda.