January 15, 2017
BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Disposable diapers are meant to be thrown out with the garbage, but the unsightly, soiled nappies have people here pushing for new regulations to limit their use.
The city needs to ban the diapers, says Decent Ndlovu, provincial environmentalist manager for Bulawayo Metropolitan at the Environmental Management Agency (EMA).
The human faeces in diapers can cause diseases, he says, and the diapers themselves don’t easily decompose.
“You can’t burn them, they don’t even rot and we have a serious challenge with the way people are handling them,” he says.
The city doesn’t have adequate incinerators to destroy diapers, he says. High heat, something more than a simple matchstick can provide, is needed.
New laws are being drafted to “involve companies that produce polluting materials and those importing products such as disposable diapers,” the EMA announced in February. Details of those draft laws aren’t available for public review, but the EMA has advocated for the introduction of community service requirements for companies and people caught polluting, among other potential consequences.
Concerns over disposable diapers run nationwide in Zimbabwe.
In December, Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri gave a six-month ultimatum for companies with potentially pollutant activities to submit their action plans on waste management or risk being levied. That includes companies involved in producing disposable diapers. None have submitted their plans, according to EMA officials.
Simela Dube, the Bulawayo City Council’s engineering services director, says the council doesn’t support the way companies currently manufacture diapers.
“We as the local authority believe in ethical manufacturing,” he says. “Everyone who manufactures a product ought to have a moral obligation to ensure that their product does not become a health, environmental or social nuisance during its entire life cycle. The current situation where disposable nappies are manufactured without a prescribed disposal way from the manufacturers is not supported.”
Representatives of Happy Sky and Farai, both disposable diaper brands, did not respond to multiple requests for a comment.
Local people disagree about how to deal with the problem.
Lovemore Dube, a parent who has used disposable diapers in the past, says poor waste management in most third world countries has worsened the way waste is collected. Disposable diapers were a significant invention, but now, he says, “the biggest challenge most third world countries face is how to dispose of them.”
Diapers litter the city, he says, and dogs tear into them.
Josephine Chikwanda, some of whose six grandchildren wear disposable diapers, says the diapers are a good innovation, but they must be managed carefully.
“I think disposable diapers are a welcome innovation because I save on washing soap, which is often required when you are using the traditional cloth diaper,” she says.
In Zimbabwe, a single diaper costs about 17 cents, while a bar of soap is about $1.30.
Some people are careless when they throw them out, she says.
“Personally, in my own way, I put the used diapers in a plastic bag and make sure that it’s sealed,” she says. “When the local authority comes for refuse collection, I make sure that the diapers are collected.”
Cloth diapers aren’t as available as they once were. Merspin, a textile firm and cloth diaper manufacturer in the region, struggled for years before being put up for auction. That happened even though many parents preferred the cloth version over disposables, which were expensive at the time, says Delma Lupepe, executive chairman and a major shareholder of the company.
But for some parents, the effort required to wash cloth diapers is daunting.
Sandra Nduwa, a hairdresser, says she never used cloth diapers because she had twins.
“Using the traditional cloth diaper meant I was going to be washing as many as 20 napkins at any given time,” she says. “I was not going to manage considering I am a working mother.”
Nduwa says she improvised her own way of disposing the diapers.
“If the diaper was soiled, I would firstly, dispose the faeces in the toilet, then wash the diaper and hang it to dry,” she says. “I would then remove the jelly-like substance inside the diaper and either flush it or dispose in the bin, then I would burn the remaining outside plastic like part of the diaper after it had dried.”
The diaper doesn’t burn easily if the absorbent material is still in it, she says.
Lovemore Dube says the city should organize specific collection points for disposable diapers, which could be taxed separate from scheduled local authority trash collection.
But Itai Ndaneta, who has diapered his children in both cloth and disposables, says he prefers traditional cloth diapers.
“I personally prefer the cloth nappies because they are simple, smart and re-usable. Disposable diapers are seen everywhere on the road,” he says. “After the disposable diaper is used, it is just dumped anywhere.”
Even if you try and burn them in a pit, after 6 months they will still be there, he says.
“Even if these diapers are placed in dust bins, when dogs are scavenging for food, they tear the soiled diaper and you find the faeces scattered all over the place,” he added. “This is not healthy as small children can unknowingly play with that dirt and become ill.”
Editor’s note: None of the sources in this story are related.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ, translated some information from IsiNdebele.