This post is the personal view of Hilary Vick, manager of RNfL, founder of Nappy Ever After and trustee of WEN

I have to say that this consultation document conjures up the image of bankers on the eve of the financial crash saying “everything’s going really well.” When England gets the EU fines for not meeting landfill reduction targets I can hear the Queen saying to David Cameron “Didn’t anyone see this coming?”

You can find a link to the consultation document at the end of this post.

Do you broadly agree with the proposed role for Government?
Yes, but … I’m worried about the complacency about recycling. The waste hierarchy means preventing waste BEFORE preparing for reuse, and preventing waste BEFORE recycling. We have to be honest with ourselves and the public and acknowledge that much of what is collected to be reused/recycled in not reusable/recyclable due to issues of quality and contamination. Recycling is also resource intensive. We need to prevent recycling; we need to reduce the manufacture and sale of single-use items urgently.

This is a role for government. This has to be done through regulation. There are precedents in other countries. For example an obligation for retailers to give a high refund for returned single-use drink containers (as was introduced in Germany many years ago). The effect was a big disincentive to stock drinks in single-use containers. And, a bit more radical I grant you, an obligation (in 5 years to give businesses time to organise) for retailers that sell single-use nappies to give a monetary reward to consumers for returning their used nappies. The retailer then has the responsibility to send the nappies to disposal at its own cost. This is a way to create a financial level playing field so that businesses that profit from selling single-use products bear the cost of disposal. It would encourage these retailers to sell the zero waste alternative to save them these costs.

These are examples of simple, achievable measures that give a clear signal to the public and industry that single-use products are wasteful and should be used in emergencies only. This is the only way in which a circular economy will be achieved. Businesses motivated purely by profit will continue for as long as they are allowed to profit from selling sugary water in single-use plastic bottles and aluminium cans to the detriment of the health of the public and the planet. Government has to govern; it has to restrict the ability of business to profit at
A the expense of public health and
B the survival of future generations.

There is an alternative to putting the cost of waste disposal/recycling onto business. They could oblige local authorities to spend at least 10% of what they spend on recycling/disposal of single use items on publicising and making available alternatives eg providing taps in streets and parks where residents can refill bottles. In the case of nappies spend that money on helping an SME/social enterprise provide washable nappy and potty training advice, a nappy laundry service or an incentive to help with buying zero waste nappies. Over the long-term the local authority would recoup this investment in reduced collection and disposal costs.

Do you broadly agree with the proposed role for business?
In parts, but while it’s true that business has expertise in communicating with the public, it’s also clear that they are masterful at persuading the public to part with their money for products that are bad for their health – both physical and mental, bad for communities and bad for the planet. It is also clear that businesses prioritise short-term profit over long-term use of resources and therefore sustainability. We are at a crucial stage when we have the opportunity to change the way we do business but business cannot do it alone. Even if they want to do the right thing they are unable to do it if their competitors are doing the wrong thing. They need a level playing field. For example supermarkets might want to sell reusable nappies but huge multi-nationals encourage them to compete with other supermarkets in using single-use nappies as a loss leader to get sleep deprived parents into their shops to buy other products.

Business marketeers are also expert at persuading parents to delay the age at which they potty train and night train their children in order for the companies to sell more product. They also misleadingly call stay dry nappy pants ‘potty training pants’ when the product does nothing to help the child potty train. My point is that government is naive to trust profit driven businesses to lead the drive to a circular economy. It is necessary for government to establish clear priorities to prevent waste through intelligent mechanisms that reduce the profits and markets for companies that behave irresponsibly. In the case of nappies, we do have well-designed, durable, easy to wash, easy to dry nappies being bought and used successfully by parents – but who talks about them? Who trusts them? They need to become the norm and Government needs to create the conditions in which the public have REAL access and REAL choice to REAL nappies.

Do you broadly agree with the proposed role for Local Authorities?

We like what the consultation paper says about partnerships. It’s what we do at Real Nappies for London. Working with a range of local authorities, waste disposal companies and waste collection companies aswellas SMEs and social enterprises to share expertise and offer residents zero waste products and services.

However not all London Local Authorities get nappy waste. There are local authorities who think nappies are not a priority waste stream. The Defra consultation advocates Zipcar and it’s obvious isn’t it? Reducing the number of cars eventually going to be recycled is waste prevention. Cars are big, right? Nappies are small. But think of the total number of babies born in London each day, the total number of disposable nappies used by one baby (4-5,000.) The weight of nappy waste is just 7 kg per week per baby but that turns out to be almost 1 tonne per baby depending on the length of time a child spends in nappies and that is getting longer and longer.

Real Nappies for London not only gives information about alternatives to disposable nappies but also information about how to get your child out of nappies. Again, like sugar filled drinks this is a health issue aswellas a waste issue so a great opportunity to change consumption patterns and reduce ill-health. And back to the point – how much nappy waste is going to landfill compared to car waste? This is the data we need to determine priorities. And willingness to wash nappies? Well that’s behaviour change and that’s slow, we know that, but we need to start the journey. And most local authorities in London already have, they just need greater leadership.

Do you broadly agree with the proposed role for other organisations and individuals?

This consultation says we can depend on dedicated individuals to make the effort to change behaviour, to set up and work for social enterprises to make zero waste products and services available to the public while we as members of an elected (and unelected) government are afraid to stick our necks out and do what is necessary. The question is, how long are we prepared to do this without support? Yes, I love turning parents on to zero waste nappies, baby wipes etc but we’ve been waiting for fair trading conditions, a level playing field for too long. We’re fed up with huge profitable corporations receiving subsidies for doing the wrong thing – not meeting the cost of disposal of the single-use products they manufacture and market so extravagantly.

Of course realistically at Real Nappies for London we know regulation will not happen with this government. But we can hope that the public catches a glimpse of Prince George in a real nappy over the next 18 months and it has the same effect as the blue polka dot dress! Local authorities that already have real nappy culture growing in their borough will benefit the most.

The conultation documents can be found here