Opinion & Columnist

EDITORIAL COMMENT : EMA must consult before imposing bans


The Environment Management Agency (EMA) has a history of sudden enthusiasm for bans that often do not cure the ill it is trying to tackle.

And now we have another, with proposals to ban disposable diapers, proposals that have good scientific backing but which are likely to generate more problems than foreseen.

We had plastic carrier bags banned in supermarkets, and that had to be modified to allow the sale of thicker carrier bags. But among piles of litter on Zimbabwean streets, carrier bags were missing because everyone recycled them.

Taking statistics from other countries and applying them to a totally different Zimbabwean problem gave the wrong answer.

In fact, if anything, Zimbabwe needs more litter bagged since it takes forever for garbage to be collected and carrier bags were frequently recycled as litter bags.


But the important point to note is that there was no switch to paper bags or reusable cloth bags. Paper bags break down easily in land fill and even compost in a decent rainy season if left as litter. Cloth bags will be reused hundreds of times, but are rarely seen in supermarket queues.

Then we had the ban on expanded polystyrene containers for takeaways. This was, in the end, driven by health considerations, although reducing litter and long-term landfill was an expected benefit.

The replacement, after a difficult few months, by clear single-use plastic containers has obviously not reduced either litter or the burial of long-term chemical waste that will take centuries to break down. And the new containers block drains as effectively as the old containers.

A switch to cardboard or other materials that breakdown quickly has been modest, but being driven by environmental education and economics rather than environmental law shows a path that EMA needs to open more frequently.

Persuading people to switch to more environmentally acceptable products and behaviour, and making it cost effective to do so, produces permanent change rather than just people looking for loopholes and carrying on as before.

Around the world, disposable diapers are seen as a growing environmental disaster. But the battle lines are drawn between childless or middle aged environmentalists against parents of babies, against those who can take a dispassionate view of the environment against those who use the disposable diapers.

The environmentalists have a very strong case. Millions of tonnes of disposable diapers are dumped in landfills each year, 3,4 million tonnes in the USA alone.

According to detailed studies, they produce seven times as much solid waste as reusable cotton nappies (nappies do not last forever and there are additions such as liners) and three times as much waste in the manufacturing process.

Waste from the plastic, pulp and paper is considerably more toxic than waste from cotton farming, processing and manufacture.

The only modest environmental plus of disposables is that once all water for manufacturing and laundry of the two types is taken into account, disposable diapers will use over their lifetime less water than reusable cotton nappies, although not that much less. Washing nappies uses a lot of water, but the industrial processes for making disposables are heavy on water.


But generally on environmental grounds considered in isolation there is not much of a case for disposable diapers.

Unfortunately they exist. And parents of babies and toddlers find them useful and labour saving.

Even on cost, there are quite different structures. Reusable nappies have a high initial cost. You need about two dozen as a minimum and as each nappy will be washed several hundred times they need to be of high quality. That adds to the initial cost.

In Zimbabwe, there were a number of makes and brands but only one, the top grade and therefore the priciest, would last more than a dozen or so washings. And that one would probably last through two babies. Nappies, in the “old days” were a major item in the gifts at baby showers.

Reusables have additional costs. Nappy liners are almost an essential addition and while liners from wet nappies can be washed and resused a couple of times, there is the need for constant input.

Most parents found it useful to use additional specially formulated detergent for soaking nappies, with the actual washing done with grated laundry soap.

This all means that before there can be a switch back to resuables, someone has to make the quality types, someone has to make and supply liners and the special detergents have to be reformulated and distributed.

Even a lot of pairs of plastic pants in assorted sizes need to be available, plus the special clips for nappies.

That is quite a lot of industry that needs to be rebuilt.

Then because of putsi flies, all the nappies need to be ironed. The net result is a lot of labour in washing and ironing and, another essential point, the supply of a lot of water for the washing and some electricity for ironing.


Water supply in most towns and cities is no longer continuous and power comes at inconvenient times.

With realistic exchange rates now in place, there could be cost savings over a year for a user of reusuable nappies. But for EMA to win, it needs to do more than have male officers announcing that it wants a ban.

It should instead have everything properly costed and then launch an educational campaign to explain the environmental and financial benefits of cotton nappies.

But there is need to ensure that products required for a reusuable culture are actually available.

And this time it needs detailed consultation, not just EMA lobbying the Government and pushing through a ban.

It needs to carry a substantial number of people with it in its efforts to upgrade rather than degrade the environment.