Wednesday 1 September 2021 6:30 am

Even entertaining a nappy tax exposes No10's muddled plans for plastic waste and climate change

Annabel Denham is director of communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs

When I saw the front page of the Daily Mail over breakfast this morning, I nearly choked on my Shreddies. It’s possible George Eustice did, too, given his department rapidly denied today’s headlines that government is contemplating a levy on disposable nappies.

Perhaps someone in Whitehall got the wrong end of the stick. Considering Ministers’ contempt for plastic, their fondness for knee-jerk bans, and the fact that former Environment Secretary Michael Gove hinted at a nappy ban back in 2018, perhaps not. So let’s engage in a swift thought experiment, and imagine the tax is going ahead.

For a start, a nappy tax would add to household budgets at a time when inflation is already eating into them: weekly grocery bills are expected to increase by £2.54 by Christmas. As is the case with a number of taxes – such as those on alcohol, tobacco or soft drinks – the move would hit the poorest families hardest.

Importantly, it would probably do little to limit the use of disposable diapers. Parents are already voting with their wallets: while the Money Advice Service has found a transition to washable nappies could save £1,475 in the years before a baby is potty trained, just 5 per cent buy them. People simply don’t want to revert to the early-1940s, before mother-of-six Valerie Hunter Gordon first invented the “Paddi” disposable nappy.

On the subject of reversing progress, even before coronavirus, studies showed women were carrying out the bulk of the housework. They were doing roughly sixteen hours of chores each week, while men did six. Studies show the pandemic has exacerbated the trend, and we can expect that the burden of additional laundry would fall disproportionately on mothers’ shoulders. As for the suggestion that this could be mitigated by using fewer nappies, parents cannot politely ask their six-month-olds to please stop crapping.

The wider issue here is that far too much modern green politics is about virtue-signalling, rather than what works. In truth, we are bad judges of what is and isn’t environmentally friendly. Google “how to wash disposable nappies” and you’ll be instructed to load the machine to no more than three-quarters full, run a rinse or quick wash cycle without detergent, then put on a “long 40/60C wash… at least two hours long” with” lots of water”. Purchase an organic cotton tote bag, but bear in mind you’ll need to use it 20,000 times to make it greener than plastic. The green agenda may be vital, but is this really the right approach?

Banning single-use plastic may sound like an easy thing to agree on. But we rely on it for a vast range of purposes, from maintaining food freshness to keeping medical instruments sterilised. Without it, produce would perish more quickly. A few years ago Morrisons stopped putting plastic wrapping on cucumbers. Despite previously defending its use on environmental grounds, pointing out that plastic wrapping cut food waste and therefore emissions of CO2 and methane, it still caved in to customer demand for a reduction.

The nappy tax idea reeks of the same muddled thinking that led former Downing Street press secretary Allegra Stratton to recommend that those who care for the planet vote Green, or Boris Johnson to declare he wants to lead the world on climate change while planning to open a coal mine in Cumbria. And surely the same arguments against diapers also apply to incontinence pads or, for that matter, sanitary products. It would take a unique form of government incompetence to impose a tampon tax just after having scrapped one (and giving them away for free in Scotland to tackle “tampon poverty”). Strangely, it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.