the material world; Pampered little dears

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The Independent Culture
The disposable nappy was invented - it's said - by a mother on Brighton beach who, finding herself without a spare terry, took her child home on the train with his bottom enfolded in newspaper. This story is uncorroborated, but must be true: the throwaway nappy is such an obvious idea, it's astonishing it took the toiletry conglomerates so long to think of it.

Proprietary disposable nappies were developed in the Fifties in Scandinavia. Early versions, absorbent paper pads inserted into special plastic pants, can't have seemed much of an improvement on the washable alternative, because they hardly caught on at all.

The first one-piece disposable to go on sale in the UK seems to have been manufactured by Colgate Palmolive. But the great boost for the disposable nappy was provided by Pampers, made by Procter & Gamble, which weren't introduced into the UK until 1982 - as recently as the Seventies, babies still experienced the terror of being menaced by safety pins.

Grandpa's idea

Procter & Gamble had developed Pampers in the US in the late Fifties. The story goes that one of their researchers (a man, of course) spent a weekend looking after his newborn grandchild and found the experience so distressing that he asked his team to produce an effective disposable nappy. Various prototypes were tested, some with pants, some with tapes, some with pins; meanwhile, names were thought up and discarded: Larks, Tads, Solos. Pampers, consisting of a plastic outer shield, an absorbent pad, and a porous layer next to the baby's skin which allowed fluid to pass through but prevented a lot of it from seeping back, emerged in the early Sixties. Since then, technology has improved. Most disposable nappies now contain a "superabsorbent" layer which can absorb 20 times its own weight of liquid. The clear, jelly-like globules which sometimes burst out of a saturated nappy come from this layer.

The pounds 1,000 nappy option

Pampers now supply nearly 70 per cent of the 2.9 billion disposable nappies we buy every year in the UK. New, "improved" models appear regularly, usually at a higher price for a smaller package. The latest is the Pampers Premium, claimed to be drier and stretchier (it's also costlier) than its predecessors. It has been calculated that if a child gets through an average of five nappies a day for two-and-a-half years, the parents will spend well over pounds 1,000 on disposable nappies.

Two dozen terry towelling squares, on the other hand, cost about pounds 45, and you can use them for several children and then turn them into dusters. There are washable nappies shaped like disposable ones, with Velcro fastenings; there is a Real Nappy Association to help you choose (PO Box 3704, London SE26 4RX); there are even washing services that take away smelly nappies and bring back fresh ones. Even so, 70 per cent of parents choose disposables. It's easy to see why.

One pine tree may seem a small price to pay for upwards of 500 nappies. But even if you decide that managed pine forests and properly regulated (though indisputably effluent) paper mills are a justifiable cost too, what about disposal? The nine million used nappies we throw away every day account for 4 per cent of all household waste. Almost all of this ends up as landfill, and 20 years of nappies have built up into underground reservoirs of raw sewage, wrapped in plastic packages that take a long time to biodegrade. And decomposing nappies contain viruses - among them the polio virus, which is excreted by babies after immunisation.

It is easy not to think about all this as you fold up your Pampers and put them into the dustbin. But some day, someone may have to think about it: maybe the children whose bottoms we are now pampering