Until 1946, cloth nappies were the only nappies that existed in Western society. They were usually cotton or muslin. There were no nappy covers except for knitted wool pants. With few covers and basic washing facilities, motivation was very high to train babies with good toilet habits as quickly as possible.
Marion Donovan, a former assistant beauty editor of America Vogue, came from a family of inventors. To stop the leakage, she began creating plastic coverings for the cloth nappies using shower curtain material. In 1946 she patented ‘the boater’ made from parachute cloth. It covered the cloth nappy and was successfully marketed from 1949. Similar plastic covers remain for sale today. Donovan also invented plastic snaps as an alternative to safety pins.
Donovan began experimenting by using absorbent paper inside the boater instead of cloth. Initially, manufacturers were not interested in her idea, saying the product would be too expensive to make. So she set herself up in business and sold her invention a year later for a million dollars.
In 1949, that was a lot of money so clearly, the potential was recognised by key entrepreneurs.
Procter and Gamble were the first company to commercially launch disposable nappies with their own design, launching Pampers in the US in 1961. It was so successful they could not meet demand during the first year. By 1971, US road departments found that disposable nappies were the single largest source of waste problem alongside American highways. If it’s true that disposable nappies take anywhere from 150 – 500 years to break down, except for the few that were incinerated, every disposable nappy that has ever been used still lies in landfill today.
The first disposable nappy was sold in Australia in 1965. Despite waste reports on the product in the US, there were no limitations set on companies producing this new invention. By the late 1980s, only half of Australian parents had adopted the disposable nappy. Cloth was still a large part of our parenting culture and most of us in our forties, would have memories of using cloth nappies with our siblings.
By the 1990s, investment in marketing the disposable nappy, combined with significant product improvements saw a huge uptake in the use of disposables with Choice Magazine reporting by the end of the century that 90 per cent of parents now used disposable nappies full- or part-time.
The backlash from disposable nappy use began with the turn of the millennium in Australia when some cloth nappy companies and eco-stores introduced eco-disposables. The eco-disposable was more expensive than conventional disposables, but the commercial uptake was successful, proving that Australian parents did care about the environmental impact of disposable nappies.
Though not 100 per cent biodegradable, many features of the product were embraced by environmentally conscious parents who were prepared to go out of their way by shopping online and at health food stores for the product.
Within a few years, even more eco-friendly disposable brands were introduced into the Australian market. Being imported brands, the costs are higher than mainstream brands but eco-conscious parents are willing to pay the price.
All the eco-brands reflect significant environmental and health benefits for babies. In the last ten years, 100 per cent biodegradable options are appearing on the market, including a model that is a biodegradable pad used in combination with a fitted cloth pant, and an all-in-one brand. This is a breakthrough and may solve many landfill issues.