The birth of a child can be a trigger point for parents to reassess their ecological footprint as they start to look for ways to preserve the planet for their children. At the same time, having a child can lead to a disproportionate increase in rubbish created and consumption of the world's diminishing resources. Is it possible to reconcile the two? How can you be a greener parent? One of the most obvious ecological impacts of having children is the mountain of disposable nappies in the world's landfill sites. According to the UK Environment Agency, the average number of disposable nappies used per day over a two-and-a-half year period is about four per child. This is 3,650 nappies in total. However, there is an alternative: cloth nappies.
Two months ago, John Savage and his wife, Rachel, brought the Totsbots range of cloth nappies into the UAE via their website, www.tini-tots.com. Savage, a teacher, and his wife, an interior designer, started the website following the birth of their daughter, Layla, now eight months old, "out of pure frustration", he explains. "It was exceptionally difficult to find cloth nappies out here." The Savages are not expecting this venture to be lucrative. "It's a very small market and quite difficult to make money. We are not doing it for that; we are doing it from an environmental viewpoint."
If cloth nappies make you think of pails of soiled cloth soaking in detergent and outsized nappy pins, think again. Cloth nappies of the 21st century are colourful and fasten with Velcro. There are even cloth swimmer nappies. "It's a matter of breaking through the mindset," says Savage. "It's easier to use washable nappies than disposable ones. You just put the nappies in a wash bag and put it in the washing machine." The nappies can be washed on a 40°C wash and don't need soaking. Once washed, simply hang out on the washing line.
Savage recommends buying at least 15 nappies if you are starting out, based on seven changes a day. They have just started stocking a new nappy: the Easyfit, which is designed to last from birth to the time a child is potty trained. The full kit of 20 nappies, with liners for night-time use and "Olympic widdlers", and a potty, costs Dh1,700. He points out that the nappies can last beyond those two years of wear and be passed on to siblings and that "in the UK, a second-hand market in the nappies has sprung up - they last that long".
The UK Environment Agency released a research paper last October updating previous research comparing the impact of disposable and washable nappies. It followed the full life cycle of the nappy from its manufacture to its in-life use and ultimately, its disposal. It examined various scenarios of cloth nappy care and stated that, over a two-and-a-half year period, if they were washed on a full load (at 60°C, as recommended by the UK Department of Health) but line-dried and reused on a second child, the global-warming impact is 40 per cent less than using disposables.
Based on a price of Dh36 for a pack of 48 Pampers nappies, if each child uses 3,650 disposable nappies over two-and-a-half years, the cost is approximately Dh2,738 per child. On these figures, washable nappies offer a financial saving of over Dh1,000 per year. But cloth nappies are not always convenient, particularly when you are travelling. A still-green alternative is to buy biodegradable brands. Lulu Hypermarket stocks the German-made Moltex Oko. These nappies are chlorine-free and come in a variety of sizes but are more expensive than traditional disposables. Mothercare has a hybrid system called Smartnappy, consisting of a reusable Velcro-fastening outer layer that can be used with either a washable pad or a disposable pad made from natural cellulose pulp.
Another aspect of having children is the tremendous amount of washing they create. Kirsty Brewis worked in Hong Kong and China as an environmental consultant for more than 10 years before moving to the UAE 18 months ago. She explains that her job "does increase your general level of environmental awareness when that is what you are doing on a daily basis". As such she has used cloth nappies with both her daughters, Saffron, three, and Indigo, one, andto further counteract the polluting aspect, she uses Ecoballs to do her washing rather than detergent.
Ecoballs contain little pellets of mineral salts which, the manufacturers claim, produce ionised oxygen that penetrates deep into the fabric, cleaning it without the need for detergent and without damaging the fibres of the clothes, helping them to last longer. "I add a couple of drops of lavender oil and tea tree oil to the wash, otherwise your clothes come out smelling of nothing." The Organic Foods and Cafe in Dubai stocks another chemical-free product called Washnuts by Samu. About five to seven of these walnut-like nuts can be added to a wash in a thin mesh bag or a sock and, the manufacturers claim, clean the entire load 100 per cent biologically.
It is tempting in the UAE, where clothing dries so fast and families may well have someone to help with the ironing, to wash clothes frequently. Admittedly, hot summer days mean clothes are more likely to need frequent cleaning, but at other times of the year, older children could be encouraged to think twice before they throw their towel in the tub after a single use. Cutting down on the number of washes you do and encouraging older children to shower rather than bathe, can have a significant impact on water use.
Brewis also makes her own naturally based cleaning products, driven in part by her sensitivity to chemicals. "There is a wealth of recipes on the internet. I use white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, water and a couple of drops of tea tree oil and lavender oil. I have it in a spray gun which is on the go the whole time - I use it all round the house," she says. Another chemical-free cleaning brand available in the UAE is Enjo. Created in Austria, it makes a specially designed cleaning cloth that uses fibre technology to lift dirt from any surface without the need for sprays.
Being a greener parent also means looking at all the products we use on our children, including the baby wipes used at nappy changes. "You can just use cloths for cleaning a child, rather than wipes. Like a flannel," suggests Savage. This will also save you money as, rather than buying packets of wipes every week, you just pop the flannels in the wash with the nappies. Wipes can still be useful when you are on the move and there are some biodegradable and chemical-free varieties available. Carrefour stocks the Corine de Farme brand and Mothercare recently came out with "natural softies". Until biodegradable nappy sacks are available in the UAE (you can buy ones made of corn starch in the UK), you could use biodegradable shopping bags, such as those provided by the Abu Dhabi Co-op.
A less obvious green choice arises when buying food in the UAE: balancing carbon emissions with chemical-free farming. Brewis shares her frustration: "I like buying organic food because it is better for the environment, but a lot of it is flown in and over-packaged, plus it's been refrigerated all the way. Or do I buy local products farmed here, which have not travelled far but have been sprayed with pesticides? It's a difficult conundrum." Most shops do stock locally produced lettuces and herbs which are grown using hydroponics. This method of agriculture uses significantly less water and pesticides than traditional farming.
Of course, part of being a green parent is educating your children to be environmentally aware. Adopting the mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle" as a family and involving the kids in recycling can be a part of this. The Heroes of the UAE green-awareness campaign, set up by the Emirates Wildlife Society and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, and endorsed by several government ministries, is aimed squarely at children. As well as the appealing adverts encouraging children to commando roll across the lounge to turn the TV off, there is the website www.heroesoftheuae.ae, offering tips on how to be green. It has a fun and informative "household carbon-footprint calculator" that you could use with your child. Another UAE-based website, www.go-green.ae, has a section on fun, green websites for children, and a wealth of suggestions on how to make all aspects of your life more environmentally friendly.
Going green can appeal to our altruistic side of wanting to save the planet and at the same time - particularly important in the present economic climate - help us to save money. All that is required is a new attitude. As Brewis says: "I'm not a complete total hippy, I'm just a normal mum trying to bring up my kids with a bit of awareness."