One of the main reasons that parents choose to use single-use nappies is because they don’t want poo in their washing machine. Parents who feel guilty about throwing away nappies; parents who are struggling to make ends meet and could really do with the savings they would gain from reusable nappies. So let’s get to the bottom of why putting poo in the machine seems so gross. Let’s take a rational look at it so that parents can make their choice based on logic, not marketing-induced fear.
It's natural to think that poo is a bit bleurgh. Because it is. Handle it badly and it causes bugs. Humans have evolved to ‘handle with care’. But in the past 15 years - and the change is as recent as that - Brits have changed.
Around that time, anti-bacterial soap and surface wipes were launched with huge marketing campaigns. We were proudly told these products killed 99.9% of bacteria and saw happy mums breathing a sigh of relief as the highchair sparkled.
We quickly changed from wanting things to look clean to needing everything bacteria-free. But there are two problems with this change of mindset. Firstly, we don’t actually NEED to kill 99.9% of bacteria - in fact, it’s a really bad idea to kill every bit of bacteria. Ever seen a yoghurt advert that promotes ‘good bacteria’? As well as lots of harmless bacteria there are also helpful, necessary and essential bacteria. Kill the harmless ones and you leave a gap that will be filled by the strong, nasty ones.
The second problem is that it has given us a really irrational fear of ‘dirt’. Dirt is not inherently bad. We need it. Chicken pellets (poo) and well-rotted manure (poo) are highly sought after by gardeners and veg growers (including the ones who service the supermarkets). Compost is made up of decayed and rotted food.
Our changed attitude is testament to some incredibly clever marketers and retail psychologists who knew exactly how to press our most human of buttons to make themselves rich. But it’s not exactly a triumph for rational thinking. Which takes us back to washing machines and poo.
It’s all about perception
Sometimes, when something is the norm, we accept it without thinking. Right now, most parents use single-use nappies so putting poo in the bin is normal.
The reality is that many cloth bum mums find the idea of putting poo in a bin pretty gross. The idea of having it stink out the house, before putting it outside to attract maggots and flies until it’s collected two weeks later - only for it to go to a landfill site and leach its toxins into the ground? Yup, they find that pretty gross.
If it were the other way round, and reusables were normal, then I’m fairly sure that the Mumsnet conversations would look pretty different.
“We’re going to stay with my SIL for the weekend and I’m thinking of taking single-use nappies. Should I warn her before I go, because her bins only get emptied every three weeks so she’s not going to like the idea of that smell and maggots crawling around her bin when the children are playing in the garden”.
The poo goes down the loo
Here’s the thing. The reusable nappy poo doesn’t go in the bin - but it doesn’t go in the washing machine either. The poo goes down the loo. Which, let’s face it, is a much better place for it than the bin.
Most parents who use a reusable nappy use a liner - a reusable fleece one or a throw-away one. The liner covers the inside of the nappy so you don’t often get poo on the nappy itself - and if you do, it’s easy just to rinse the nappy over the toilet (with a jug, a shower hose or the toilet's own flush).
So nothing solid goes in the machine.
Washing away dirt is what your machine is designed for
Obviously, there will be marks left from the poo, or times when the liner hasn’t caught every bit of poo. Which is where your washing machine comes into its own. It will wash away the dirt.
Every time you wash your underwear, your dishcloths, your towels or the clothes covered in substances that only a toddler can discover, you’re doing it because you know that your washing machine will get them clean. And nappies are no different.
All underwear - whether worn by a three-year-old or an adult - contains traces of bodily - ahem - excreta. Towels and gym socks can harbour lots of ickiness. But the reason they don’t make you ill? Your washing machine cleaned them.
Nurses’ uniforms don’t get put in the bin after every shift, and they don’t even get washed on site. Nurses take their uniform home and wash it there. Farmers wash their overalls. They’re still here to tell the tale.
The evidence speaks for itself
If you’re over 30 then you almost certainly wore reusable nappies. The chances are that your mum washed them by hand. You’re still here to tell the tale, and your mum didn’t bring you up in a house full of vomit-inducing bugs.
Since the invention of washing machines, tens of thousands of nappies have been washed in them every single day. In this era of germ-phobia, you can be fairly sure that if washing nappies caused some sort of health hazard then someone - the manufacturers of disposables, public health officials or certain hysterical sections of the press - would have picked it up by now.
Babies in reusable nappies don’t get ill any more than babies in disposables. Parents who put reusables in the machine don’t get ill any more than other parents.
We live in a world where marketing gurus have convinced us to buy their increasing array of cleaning products by tapping into our most natural fears. Their messages have been drip fed to us for years, without being challenged. Somewhere along the line, we’ve stopped seeing their adverts as marketing and started accepting them as fact. Within this environment, the uncomfortable fear of poo in the washing machine is understandable - but once you move away from the emotive marketing and look at the logical, rational facts, then it quickly becomes a fear without foundation.