Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Disposable nappies, reusable nappies, or infant potty training? What’s the most environmentally friendly toilet option for tinies?

My daughter was 10 weeks old when she first asked to use the toilet. I had taken her to the park in her pushchair, for an autumnal walk with my husband. Suddenly Rose shouted “a!” and started jiggling about, squirming frantically as if she had a sore behind. We rushed home and dashed to the bathroom.

To my surprise her nappy was dry. I lifted her up and, cuddling her with her back to me, supporting her legs on one arm, I held her bottom over the loo. A huge wee gushed out. She raised her little head and grinned at me. “A!” she said again. From then on, that was her signal that she needed to wee. At 16 weeks she added the word “poo” to her vocabulary. It’s still hard to believe it now. What we had accidentally discovered is called “elimination communication”. Is this the answer to the environmental problem of baby toileting?

Most parents in the developed world use disposable nappies until the child is potty trained. Disposable nappies are regarded as being environmentally unfriendly. A recent study carried out for DEFRA cast doubt on the benefits of reusable nappies as they are currently used. The study found that fewer than 5% of parents use reusables, and by far the most common reusable nappies in use are terry squares or cloth prefolds. The big impacts of reusables included the water and energy required to wash and dry them, and also, perhaps surprisingly, the energy and chemicals used to manufacture them.

As well as doubt over the environmental benefits, there are many barriers to using reusable nappies. Disposable nappies are given away at maternity hospitals. Reusables are rarely, if ever given away. Disposable nappies are available in most convenience shops, and a huge range is available in supermarkets and pharmacies. By contrast, reusable nappies are rarely available to buy from a shop.

The upfront cost is a problem. A pack of about 25 disposable nappies costs around £5. The same number of reusable nappies with wraps costs between £100 (for terry squares) to £250 for shaped ones. Once used, they become difficult to sell - for instance eBay bans sales of used nappies and many mothers feel squeamish about buying them. By contrast, opened packs of disposable nappies can be swapped or shared. It’s cheap and easy to try out a new brand of disposable nappy. Trying out a new brand of reusable requires a leap of faith, and a great deal of money.

Disposable nappies are easy and convenient to use - you put them on, take them off, throw them away. That’s all there is to it.

Reusables often require some preparation before you first put them on the baby - many require pre-washing and drying. Some manufacturers recommend washing 3, 5 or even 10 times before use. If you don’t prewash these nappies they may not absorb liquid. Some mothers who miss the pre-washing instructions give up assuming the nappy to be a poor fit. Having got the nappy into a usable condition, the reusable nappy may still require some preparation at each change. Almost all require a paper or fleece liner. Terry or muslin squares have to be folded into a shape. Babies wriggle and grab, so a flat nappy may have to be folded into shape more than once at each change.

Once used, reusable nappies have to be washed and dried. If you don’t get round to washing them, they start to stink, and you run out of nappies. If you wash them in the wrong detergent or on the wrong cycle, you can damage them, for instance by destroying the elastic or Velcro. If you dry them in a tumble drier at too high a temperature you can cause damage to the fibres, if you don’t dry them in time they can go mouldy.

It is important to note that there are types of reusable nappies that wash at low temperatures, dry on a rack within an hour or two, and are almost as convenient to use as disposables. The main difficulty with these is finding out about them, and paying the upfront cost. These were excluded from DEFRA’s study because so few people use them. It may well be that they are better for the environment than disposables, terries or prefolds. And of course, it may be possible to reduce the impacts of terries and prefolds too.

If reusable nappies are too difficult to use, and not, ultimately beneficial, then does infant potty training (elimination communication) have a role to play? Infant potty training is often used through lack of choice, in places and at times where no or few nappies of any kind are available. Using this method nappies may never be used, or their use may be discontinued as early as 9 months.

So far as I can make out, infant potty training in the UK is extremely rare. Anecdotally, some mothers who try it say they have great success. Others find it doesn’t work for them. What’s not clear, as it’s so rare as a method, is what would happen if everyone was doing it.

An interesting problem is that infant potty training does not seem to reduce the number of nappy changes and may actually increase it as the mother is more aware of each wet nappy. Where no nappies are used, if the baby is clothed then their clothes (and often their mother’s clothes) may need to be laundered just as nappies would.

For us, elimination communication worked well. We had very many clean dry days and were able to give up nappies altogether when Rose was 19 months old. But our experience of cloth nappies was so bad we used disposables. We were shocked to find out that we changed much more frequently than most other parents. In total we used as many disposable nappies as the average baby, just compressed into a shorter time.

Celia Jones

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Park and Ride – in perspective

Superficially Park and Ride seems good as cutting off a trip by a motorist at the edge of a city and reducing pollution and traffic on residential and commercial roads, is surely a good thing. Well, for people already owning a car (and car ownership weaves a special pattern into the lifestyle), having a car park provided on the edge of town to remove aggravating city driving, is really good. But wait, here's another view:

Expecting people to drive to railway stations puts an artificial limit on the number of passengers the system can support. Car parks are expensive to build and maintain, are space-intensive, lock up valuable land near stations. The users of the system are required to own just as many cars as if public transport didn't exist. In well-patronised rail systems around the world, most train passengers arrive at the station by feeder bus or tram, not by car; it would simply be impossible to provide enough car parking to get all these passengers there by car instead.

So how does this work in practice ? Well for Network Rail's effort at attracting people to the Preston / Birmingham to London Euston trains, £89 million pounds was spent on car parking, this amounting to more than £24,000 per parking space. On the economic side, putting aside the possibility that the private car might become a scarcer resource in the future, will the parking spaces ever pay for themselves ?

Centro has built car parking spaces for railway stations, does not charge for them, and can present evidence to show that people have been attracted to the train who would not otherwise travel that way. However, there seems little trouble filling Birmingham's trains, and to invest £24,000 to attract one passenger perhaps spending £400 per year on a ticket, may not be so wise.

The parking place game diverts money from other places. It is understood that some people who would never travel on a bus, will use a train. The same people will take a taxi or go by coach during holidays, so perhaps a better bus will attract someone to travel from home without including a car in their journey at all.

Real people are the test. A parking-gift beneficiary at Selly Oak Station car park revealed her travel arrangements: Bartley Green to Selly Oak by car, Selly Oak to Birmingham by train. Easily explained as although the 20 and 21 buses are fairly close and run through to University Station (for onward train travel), they are not reliable.

An unreliable bus ? An investment of £24,000 per user could certainly buy a lot of good bus service.

(The author credits PTUA of Melbourne, Australia, with the text in bold).

John Hall

A Weekend of Cycling Events

I have now gone from being a critical mass virgin to doing 2 in a weekend and then a charity bike ride on Sunday, too. I was hardly out of the saddle, although the three were quite different.

On Friday evening at 6pm I turned up at St Phillips Square for my first Critical Mass ride ever. The Birmingham event has been going (on and off) for a couple of decades now (first Friday of the month) and I have been intending to do it for a while, but always seem to forget or have something else on. The weather was fine this week, though, and there was a good turnout of happy, positive people. We wheeled around the normally intimidating big roads which are usually dominated by cars and lorries with our message that we are traffic too.

There were around 20 of us at the Friday night critical mass and lots of them said they would be out the next day for the ride to the airport, so I left very optimistic. There were no major incidents of drivers getting overly aggressive (which I'm told can happen) and it was a good chance to meet some other cyclists, although I didn't stick around for the post-ride pint, as I was hungry for tea.

They have a facebook group if you want to see what's going on and an email list if you want to receive information.

Saturday was the Ride Down the Road and the weather was foul. Almost as cold and wet as you could think of the weather being in May. I suspect that largely due to this the numbers were not as high as we were hoping they would be. The people travelling in to Brum were already committed and so all turned up, but the more local people saw the rain and understandably had second thoughts. Look at the aviation section of the Birmingham Friends of the Earth website for more information on why we were doing this and what the council is doing to prop up Birmingham International Airport.

Even so, it went pretty well, despite the more aggressive nature of some of the drivers along the A45. After a while, we went down to just the one lane to ensure nothing unpleasant happened. A report of the day and picture can be found on the bfoe website. Plane Stupid, Indy Media and the University of Warwick Students' paper all did reports, too.

On Sunday a friend of mine was doing a charity bike ride to mark the anniversary of a horrific crash she had when cycling that left her with a broken back and needing a lot of care from a specialist spinal injuries clinic. The weather for this was almost perfect and we rode from Canon Hill park along the Rea valley cycle route to Kings Norton and back. Over 120 people took part and it was great to see so many people on bikes having a good time and supporting a good cause at the same time.

If we could get the same number of people who came along on Sunday to do a critical mass and show that we want cyclists to be treated better on the roads, that'd be truly great, so anyone who can, please come along to the next one on the first Friday of next month. Also, support our 20's plenty campaign to make the roads safer all over the city.