Don’t Throw in the Towel: The Case for Re-Usable Nappies

January 24, 2022

Cloth nappies provide a cheaper option to their disposable counterparts and they are friendly to the environment.

By Nontobeko Mlangeni

As a gender advocate and passionate environmentalist, working on sustainable solutions to single-use diapers has been a challenge for me. At face value, addressing one challenge seems to create another, as in the case of eliminating single-use diapers in favour of reusable nappies.

The contribution of single-use diapers in reducing the burden of reproductive responsibilities on women and allowing them to save time cannot be ignored. However, the advance towards single-use diapers has also contributed to several environmental setbacks, especially in areas without adequate waste collection systems. Disposable diapers are not only a public nuisance, but they also pollute surface water and are sometimes ingested by livestock. They also clog drainage systems, and pose a number of health risks. Therefore, solving this challenge without applying a gender lens is likely to raise concerns among advocates for gender equality and it could cause setbacks in work done to ease the burden for women raising children.

From a cultural perspective, childcare and maintaining good sanitation, such as managing diaper waste, is usually the sole responsibility of women. As such, any sustainable solution that promotes the use of reusable alternatives must bear this in mind. As we aim to investigate the most gender-responsive solution, we have conducted Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) with a diverse group of women. Those women have identified reusable nappies as the most suitable solution to mitigate the negative environmental impact in peri-urban and rural communities where adequate waste collection systems are almost non-existent.

From the perspectives of the FGDs participants, single-use diapers do not affect only the environment, but also the incomes of women and the health of their babies. Therefore, a holistic, gender-sensitive approach must be considered. One of the issues raised by the FGDs was that single-use diapers are expensive, and the money spent on them could be used to provide for other childcare needs such as food, health, or saving for education. Indeed, according to the South African Cloth Nappy Association, on average, a child will use $1,100 (E15,000.00) worth of disposable nappies by the time they are potty trained, compared to an average cost of $250 (E3500) for cloth nappies. The FGDs attested to this observation that many young women would rather ensure that single-use diapers are available first before worrying about other baby needs.

A survey carried out by UNDP Eswatini Accelerator Lab that mapped 610 households found that 37 percent of infants and toddlers under the age of three live in low-income households that receive an average of less than $32 (E500) per month.  The survey further found that parents who are low-income earners are spending a large portion of their money on diapers. For instance, 94 percent of households earning below $ 32 (E500) were found to use single-use diapers and, of these, 51 percent were found to spend between ($ 3.15 – $10 E50 - E150), while 38 percent spend between $ 10 – $19 (E151 and E300) on disposable diapers. This means that low-income earners who receive below $32 (E500), spend up to 60 percent of their direct incomes on single-use diapers.

Cloth nappies provide a cheaper option to their disposable counterparts and they are friendly to the environment. For example, in Eswatini, the cost of one cloth nappy can be as low as $2.00 (E30.00) and with over 96 percent of the infants surveyed, using up to five nappies per day, this becomes a cheaper alternative, no matter how many are needed. The UNDP Eswatini Acc. Lab is currently running an experiment with 80 caregivers in five communities under the Ludzeludze Inkhundla to learn more about the practicability of a transition to much more environmentally friendlier options such as cloth nappies to reduce waste.

Although the debate on baby sanitary wear options continues, and it is not limited to the cost, disposable diapers have proven to harm the environment especially in developing countries like Eswatini.

(Nontobeko Mlangeni is the Head of Solutions Mapping at UNDP Eswatini Acc. Lab)