Tackling the scourge of nappy pollution in South Africa

Photo Credit: Known People

Imagine our environment and rivers free of disposable nappy pollution. This is the ultimate goal of the reusable Smart Nappy project that is currently being piloted in rural Matatiele, Eastern Cape, with support from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust.

‘The Smart Nappy is nothing like the old cloth nappies of days gone by – these are beautifully designed, technically advanced reusable nappies. Smart Nappy is a generic term we coined for a commodity produced by several global and South African brands, including our project partner, BiddyKins,’ says environmental scientist Nicky McLeod from the Matatiele-based non-profit organisation, Environmental & Rural Solutions (ERS), which is coordinating the project. ‘Smart Nappies tend to be used by eco-conscious urban families who have online access, but they have not reached remote rural areas. That’s what we aim to address by making them acceptable, affordable and accessible.’

The size-adjustable waterproof outer pants of the Smart Nappy can be used from birth until the child is 3 years old. The pants have a washable double-layered inner that forms a ‘pocket’ into which a washable microfibre, moisture-absorbing pad fits. A biodegradable soft wipe (similar in texture to a wet wipe, but dry) is layered over this to trap moisture and solids. The wipe is easily disposed of in a toilet or compost heap and breaks down in weeks as it contains no plastic and only bamboo fibre. They last for many years and can be used by successive children, to the extent that there is a thriving FaceBook page for second-hand smart nappies.

McLeod explains the motivation behind the Smart Nappy project: ‘In the rural villages around Matatiele, which has a population of 225 000 people, almost 8 000 tonnes of disposable nappies are discarded in the surroundings and streams every year, largely because 75% of these very remote and underserviced villages have limited refuse removal services. This is despite the gallant efforts by the Matatiele Local Municipality, one of the core project partners, which faces resource challenges to cover the huge rural footprint with no formal road network. The idea for this project emerged from a small grant provided to ERS in 2021 by The Nature Conservancy for exploring nature-based solutions to waste issues affecting freshwater systems.’

Also partnering with the Smart Nappy Team is Professor Catherina Schenck, who heads the Department of Science and Innovation and holds the National Research Foundation’s South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Waste and Society at the University of the Western Cape. Extrapolating from Prof Schenck’s research in other areas, it is estimated that if the local Matatiele municipality collected disposable nappies in the survey area, they would have to pick up 16 skips a day from villages where there are bad roads or no roads, and then take them to the local landfill, which has a limited lifespan.

‘This is not tenable or affordable, so the alternative is to reduce the number of disposables causing the huge amount of pollution and freshwater contamination in the environment,’ says McLeod. ‘In addition, we surveyed 160 households in rural Matatiele and found that mothers and carers spend an average of R500 on disposables per month, which amounts to almost all of their grant-based income.’

She explains that there is a 57% unemployment rate in the Matatiele area, the average monthly income is R3 300 for 5 people, and the statistics are similar in other rural areas in South Africa. ‘The Smart Nappy pack is far more cost-effective, at a once-off amount of ±R1 000, instead of R8 000 per year for disposables,’ McLeod explains. Together with BiddyKins, which is supplying the starter packs at cost as part of this pilot, the project team have developed an incremental purchase plan, with starter packs retailing at R250 or larger packs at R585.

ERS did an initial pilot with mothers and grandmothers in 3 villages on the use of the reusable nappies. They said they liked them, that they are easy to wash in a bucket with a bit of cold water and green soap.

‘The beauty of the Smart Nappy model is that not only is it an essential initiative to stop polluting river sources and the environment, it is also far more affordable and it is a microenterprise development initiative for women in the area,’ says Poovi Pillay, Executive Head of Corporate Social Investments (CSI) at Nedbank. ‘Nedbank’s purpose is to be financial experts who do good for individuals, businesses and communities, and this partnership plays an instrumental role in achieving this.’

Local women selling the starter packs earn anything from R30 to R55 profit per pack sold. A person selling about 40 units per month could make ±R1 550 a month, which is a much-needed addition to the ±R15 000 income per year.

With the funding from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, they are:

  1. working on getting the buy-in from mothers in 2 large pilot areas of 27 000 people in the Matatiele area, including the clinics and municipality;
  2. developing a scalable costing and distribution system in partnership with NGO SaveAct that works with community enterprise development, bulk buying and distribution countrywide; and
  3. producing a video for mothers and clinics to show the benefits of using easy-to-use and wash smart nappies for their babies and their finances, and to protect their water sources and environment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HdKxjX7PVc

The Smart Nappy project is part of ERS’s broader freshwater conservation, regenerative landscape, sustainable rangeland farming and livelihood work, with some support from WWF.

‘Matatiele’s Umzimvubu river catchment is one of South Africa’s strategic water source areas, and the most cost-efficient, sustainable way to conserve and free up freshwater is by looking after the springs, rivers and natural landscapes,’ McLeod explains. ‘This requires cleaning up and rehabilitating the environment by restoring healthy grasslands, managing alien plants, restoring wetlands and soils, and working with Matatiele’s communal farmers on sustainable rangeland projects, which have been very successful.’

ERS mentors and employs young people from the communities called EcoChamps – to help manage their work with the communities and traditional and local authorities.

McLeod explains that because many people in the rural villages do not receive bulk reticulated municipal water, they have to fetch water from the springs and rivers, which is shared with livestock and other animals, and which is often heavily polluted, including with solid waste such as disposable nappies.

To address this, an innovative spring capture system, using a simple method and involving local village artisans, was initiated in Matatiele and has been led by ERS and WWF since 2018. It is based on a simple, highly effective system of protecting existing springs which the residents identify, at an average final cost of R200 per person to supply reliable water at WHO standards.

To date, 43 protected springs have been constructed, bringing clean, fresh water to 45 000 people here. The WWF Nedbank Green Trust has funded 18 of the protected springs, providing quality water to 600 households in 12 villages where more than 4 000 people live. The cost per person over a lifetime is far less than using the bulk water system from the municipalities, which costs hundreds of millions of rands, and often does not operate due to technical issues. The municipal taps are often dry, and the pumps are excessively expensive and prone to load-shedding and breakdown.

To increase sanitation awareness, in 2021 ERS and NGO partners LIMA and CSA initiated a local WASH programme, led by staff members from the community. WASH – Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene – is a global initiative supported by the United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that aims to provide every child across the world with access to safe drinking water, clean toilets, and proper sanitation facilities.

ERS is also part of the national OneHealth network, which includes several NGOs, the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), state agencies and research institutes, working together to address waste and related health issues throughout the country. This includes the Kimberly-Clark-funded nappy collection pilot project in Langa, Cape Town, led by Hugh Tyrrell of GreenEdge. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XURskN_Enp0

While most efforts under the OneHealth collective are addressing improved collection services, the Smart Nappy project is the only one diving into the ‘reduce’ concept of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Waste strategy.

‘We are really positive about the ‘Smart Nappy’ concept, which provides a generic term for several brands of this type of design, and confident that it will gain traction over the next few months,’ says McLeod. ‘We’ve already had enquiries from other parts of South Africa and once we have a workable awareness, payment and distribution system in place, with SaveAct’s assistance we can scale this. It could be a real game changer for rural savings and waste management countrywide.’