Image: Mamma’s Laef | FB

Could disposable nappies become a thing of the past in the Pacific?

Millions are used every year across the region, and it’s estimated each one of them will take up to 500 years to break down.

A baby might use as many as 2500 nappies in just the first year of their life.

“It doesn’t take too much to add up, when you’ve got 7000 babies born every year,” New Zealander Belinda Rosellie told Pacific Beat.

She helped set up the Vanuatu NGO Mammas Laef, that started its work on reusable sanitary products for women, but has since expanded to look at the problem of nappies.

“It’s estimated that Vanuatu would use approximately 7 million disposable diapers in a year, which sounds a lot, but…a newborn baby might need 12 to 15 nappies a day,” Mrs Rosellie said.

It means that plastic, single use nappies are the single largest contributing item to waste in the capital Port Vila.

But not all end up in landfill, with many often found littered across beaches, in waterways and in vacant land blocks, which poses a health issue too, spreading E Coli and other bacteria that can cause diarrhea.

“There was a real issue here with unsafe disposal of single use disposable diapers,” Mrs Rosellie said.

Washing machine needed

The Vanuatu Government announced plan in early 2019 to ban single use nappies, so work has begun to come up with a sustainable alternative: a washable, reusable nappy and also a washing machine that can be used in villages that don’t have electricity.

There is now hope that the project can be extended to other Pacific countries as well, who face a similar dilemma of what to do with their nappies piling up.

Steve Tarimaemae works with the NGO Engineers without Borders, and is working on a prototype for a tumble drum, which is a non-electric washing machine.

He’s hoping to have their prototype ready this month but has already been working with local communities to trial it.

“They trial in the communities, they love washing with the machine. They say it’s very easy since… you have this inset [in the cloth nappy], so you don’t need to wash the whole product,” he said.

“It’s very easy to use, and it’s very reliable, since it’s using only a small amount of water and not using too much”.

A key part of their approach is to ensure that the tumble drum is able to be fixed, even in remote locations.

“If the machine breaks down…then whoever is responsible, or whoever that machine belongs to, can just get some parts from a hardware store,” Mr Tarimaemae said.

They’ll have the local community test the design before they hope to be able to scale it up and share it widely, including across the Pacific.