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article imageCloth diaper tax breaks: baby's bottom, government's bottom line Special

By Lynne Melcombe     Nov 5, 2009 in Environment
In Port Coquitlam, BC, citizens are raging about an impending switch to biweekly garbage collection, with a frequently raised concern being pile-ups of stinky diapers for young families.
At the same time, a Canada-wide diaper-service franchise operation is field-testing a product that could revolutionize diapering in a way not seen since the introduction of disposables. And they are lobbying for significant tax incentives to encourage families to make the switch.
“Our product mimics disposables in every way,” says Happy Nappy co-owner and chief researcher Brent Pederson. More importantly, he says, it has a multitude of advantages over disposables – reducing impacts on garbage, forests, water supplies, and public health, while also saving money for cash-strapped families. There are so many advantages that Pederson and wife/co-owner Kate MacEachern are lobbying governments for everything from GST breaks to reduced property taxes to persuade parents to see beyond the “yuck factor” and give cloth a try.
After years of research and 15 prototypes, Happy Nappy is putting the finishing touches on a diaper with a highly absorbent microfibre outer layer that keeps the outside of the diaper dry, and a comfy fleece inner layer that wicks moisture away from baby’s skin. They’re compact, to appeal to parents who don’t want bulky cloth diapers ruining the look of cute baby clothes. They wash well, and are recyclable. Happy Nappy uses enviro-friendly detergents, free of surfactants and phosphates, and uses only a small amount of chlorine bleach, and their washing temperatures are higher than possible in any home.
Pederson and MacEachern, who have four children of their own, launched Happy Nappy seven years ago in the Sherwood Park area of Alberta out of their concern for the environment. Business grew steadily for about three years, until Sherwood Park introduced a waste-management program that included tying the cost of garbage disposal to the households generating the garbage.
“Our business numbers jumped by 60 percent as soon as that initiative came out,” says MacEachern.
So when Pederson and MacEachern hear about municipal initiatives (such as the one currently taking heat in Port Coquitlam, BC) that may encourage residents to reduce garbage by buying cloth nappies, they’re happy. But while they won’t mind if their business continues growing, they say money isn’t their main motivation.
“We’re not tree huggers,” says Pederson, “but it’s our company philosophy to lower our environmental footprint.” Right on point, they recently turned down a significant investment offer because they would have been required to give up too much control over the direction the company is taking.
Part of that direction is getting politicians to see that what goes onto baby’s bottoms can play a role in any government’s bottom line. To that end, one of their BC franchisers has been meeting with MPs, MLAs, and anyone else who will listen not only to publicize their new product, but to draw attention to the petition on their website.
“The basic premise of the petition is that governments should give something back to families who are doing something to make a difference,” says Pederson. According to the Happy Nappy website:
- 27.4 billion disposable diapers are consumed every year in the US; 92% of them end up in landfills. It could take up to 250 years for them to decompose.
- Over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum, and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce enough disposable diapers for one baby EACH YEAR.
- In 1988, nearly $300 million dollars were spent to discard disposable diapers (and that was over 20 years ago. Factor in today’s higher costs and shrinking landfill space …)
- It has been centuries since so much human waste was disposed of, untreated. Over 100 viruses can survive in soiled diapers for up to two weeks – H1N1, anyone?
So what kind and how much of a tax credit does Pederson think cloth-diaperers should receive?
For starters, there should be a GST break. “It’s hard for us to compete with disposable manufacturers on cost,” he says. “Their products are made in countries like India that provide incredibly cheap labour. A mega-bag of diapers at Wal-Mart can go for as little as $23. If parents follow the instructions on the package, they’ll only change the baby every eight hours, so that bag will last a week.” But if babies are changed as often as health experts advise (eight times a day, to avoid diaper rash), the cost for disposables over two years rises to about $4300 – whereas a diaper service is about $2300.
A GST break is not the only, or the biggest, tax break MacEachern would like to see – how about a $1000 break on property taxes for homeowners, he suggests.
“Children make up 22% of the population, and on a population basis [100 children vs. 100 adults] disposable diapers are the third-largest source of waste,” he says. The cost in waste-disposal is staggering.
But “imagine a young family moving into a community and the community says, ‘Thanks for buying a house in our community. You have a baby, you’ve just bought a house – this is one of the most expensive times in your life. So this is what we’re going to do for you.’ Do you think those people are likely to stay and give back to that community? Of course they are.”
And let’s face it, he says, they’d only be getting this tax break for two years per child. That’s compared with four years of business tax breaks on all those imported disposables. Why four years? Because toddlers don’t feel wet in disposables, so it can take them up to two years longer to toilet train.
The problem is that most families won’t make the change on their own. Companies like Happy Nappy tend to be preaching to the choir. The only thing likely to change that is monetary incentives for parents, and the best way to change that is to demonstrate the bottom line on cloth diapers to governments.
“No one makes a bad decision,” Pederson says. “They make decisions based on the information they have at the time. What we want to do is give people information. Will we see results right away? No. Will our children see results? I think so, and I think they’ll thank us for it.”
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