Illustration: Robert Wallace

The case for reusable nappies: One dad's poo-filled environmental journey

Scrubbing crap from a reusable diaper is a gruesome task, but unfortunately the right thing to do.

In the summer of 2018, I found myself sifting through piles of garbage. It was a work thing. We were filming for the Lightbox show Get It to Te Papa, and I was combing a rubbish dump for the dildo that hit Steven Joyce in the face at Waitangi.

There were no discarded sex toys to be found, but as I peeled back the layers of filth, another household item stood out. The heap was heaving with nappies. There were thousands of them, teaming between plastic wrappers and rotting furniture. Some were neatly folded. Others had flung open to reveal their payload to the open air. I was young at the time and, besides being covered in waste, carefree. I’d never reckoned with the relentless churning digestive systems of our nation’s children.

My child Thomas was born on 8 June. He came into the world shitting. The pressure from his passage through Rachel’s pelvis had forced him to release his bowels. When he cried in the delivery suite, his mouth gurgled softly with brownish liquid. And he hasn’t really stopped since. Newborns can need nappy changes up to 12 times a day. Thomas was only a little short of that.

You’d think, having seen what I’ve seen, I would’ve opted to use compostable or reusable nappies instead of sending those turds to the landfill to expel their methane straight into our overheating atmosphere. I didn’t. Self-interest is a powerful motivator, and the sleep-deprived blur of new parenthood forces concessions. I barely knew how to change a nappy. Neither of us could bear the thought of life being any more difficult than it already was. We used Huggies, and then Rascal+Friends.

It was only a few weeks ago when guilt, and Metro, got the better of me. We switched to the compostable nappies that had been left sitting in the wardrobe upstairs. At the age of five months, Thomas experienced his first non-disposable nappy.

The first crap exploded over his leg. I was holding him when, suddenly, my hand felt wet. “What’s that?” I asked, stupidly.

Though Thomas is happy, he’s never been big. He started life in the second percentile for weight and at around three months old, dropped to the first. Nappies have never fitted him well, due to his lack of fat rolls. The second turd shot out of the space between the compostable nappies and his thigh, through a gap in his onesie, and onto the bench where we were eating dinner.

It was miraculous, but annoying. We changed tack and ordered four reusable nappies from the small Wairarapa retailer Clever Wee Fox. I expected the worst. Reusable nappies are notoriously time-consuming and labour-intensive. One online tutorial on how to use them runs to 3800 words. “It’s very simple,” the tutorial begins, before adding countless paragraphs on topics like “Drypailing v Soaking Storage”.

I was wrong to be so wary. The nappies were shockingly easy to use. Changing a disposable nappy can be a work of physical endurance and trigonometry, as you line up two adhesive strips and wrap them around a wriggling, sometimes urinating body. These nappies use domes instead of adhesive, taking the guesswork out of sealing them. They’re hardy, able to withstand decent-sized explosions. Importantly, they’re also cute, decorated with pictures of cats, jellyfish and flowers.

There were some downsides. Every nappy has to be fitted with an inliner to protect it from vicious assaults. The official advice is to hold those inliners under a flushing toilet to wash off detritus after changes. Thomas’s craps were too stubborn for that. It took a scrubbing brush to dislodge his mustardy movements.

It’s easy to feel indignant when you’re scouring the greatest hits of your baby’s gastrointestinal tract. Twenty companies produce a third of the world’s carbon emissions, I thought. How many nappies would I have to scrub to actually make a difference? A billion? More? Don’t the solutions to climate change and other environmental crises lie in systemic, legislative change, rather than our painstaking efforts to clean up a repository for baby poo?

But there’s very little I can do to change the business practices of a Saudi oil company. I can control the adornment of my infant’s butt. As Thomas gurgled happily above his latest carnage, it occurred to me that one day, he’ll ask what I did to stop the climate catastrophe wrought by his grandparents’ idiotic generation. He probably won’t take kindly to my telling him I read an article about ExxonMobil and sank into ineffectual despair.

At least this way, as we watch Britomart sink under the waves, I can turn to him and say, “I hand-washed your craps out of sheets of linen, my son”. 

This piece originally appeared in the January-February 2020 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline 'Nappy dread'.

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