20 pledges for 2020: Why conserving water has improved our sense of smell

20 pledges for 2020: Why conserving water has improved our sense of smell
Last night, for the first and hopefully last time, I put a load of used nappies up for auction.  

Don’t click away in revulsion just yet though. I’m flogging the brightly coloured, re-usable, astonishingly user friendly cloth variety, rather than a swathe of the one billion plastic ones we merrily sling into landfill every year that will never fully break down (even those ‘biodegradable’ ones).  

Weirdly, I kind of love them. But my youngest child hasn’t used them for a year and they absolutely have to go.  

God how I wish I’d delved into reusable nappies with kid number 1.  

It would have saved time, space and a damned fortune compared with disposables before you even get to the eco benefits.  

But my mum’s gruesome tales of coming home from work to soaking, stinking pails of terry towelling and my dad stabbing himself endlessly with safety pins after a 2am explosion put me right off.

These things are pricey up front I’m not denying it – around £15 each new. There are some parents out there who buy limited edition ones for up to £500 believe it or not. For a nappy. That they probably won’t even use on their children.  

I originally snapped up the ones now sitting in the virtual sale room for the same second-hand price I’ve relisted them at – about £6 each.

Traditional single use plastic nappies can take hundreds of years to fully break down and compose


I’m stupidly excited about breaking even on these. It will be the final tick in a no compromises box.  

Well, almost no compromises.  

The criticism about reusable nappies is that they use a lot of water. Well, yes, they do. You have to wash them. A lot. In very hot water.  

Our household energy comes from renewables but I can’t get away from the water consumption.  

On the plus side though it has really put the issue of water use in our house front and centre.  

We have always been showers-not-baths people, but putting bricks in cisterns, turning off the tap while lathering up and tipping the kids’ half empty glasses of water into plant pots instead of down the drain has become surprisingly important. Even the water from rinsing fruit and vegetables goes into the rainwater collection butt outside for example. I reckon taking care with the wet stuff now saves us about £150 a year on our bill.

Then there’s the question of what goes down the drain along with the water we don’t manage to reuse.  

Being zero waste has helped a lot. Replacing plastic bottles full of highly perfumed shampoo and shower gel from the big high street brands with solid bars quickly reduced the toxicity of the water we were tipping away.  

Then we took a deep breath, set aside our misgivings and ditched the shop-bought cleaners in favour of homemade cleaning products too.  

The bleach and other strong cleaners were swapped for water, vinegar steeped in citrus rinds, bicarbonate of soda and grated dish soap. With a bit of essential oil thrown in if we’re feeling really fancy. 

I now whip our eldest’s school shirts into the sunshine at every opportunity rather than apply corrosive stain removers.

We started experimenting, delving into the hippier end of Pinterest and Instagram for natural, cheaper, and sometimes even free cleaning solutions that Gran would have been more than familiar with.  

One evening of sitting on the floor smashing conkers to bits with a hammer while Eastenders played on in the background because of their fabled ability to clean clothes still sticks in my mind as a particularly bizarre way to spend time. They have similar properties to soap nuts but without the sourcing controversy. Conkers that is, not the residents of Albert Square.  

A new found relationship with playground weaponry aside there have, as usual, been some unexpected knock-on effects.

The constant back-of-your-head fear that the kids will get into the cupboard under the sink and start swigging bleach for reasons known only to themselves has disappeared overnight.  

The worst thing that can happen is that they OD on vinegar. They may retch but they probably won’t die.  

The pollutants in our home are fewer too. All those manufactured toiletries, perfumes, air fresheners and cleaners are heavily laden with usually toxic scents that we have come to recognise as a ‘clean smell’.  

They are defended by manufacturers who point out that the exposure to toxins is 100th of a harmful dose. As if we’re only ever exposed to one of them at a time.  

Even paraffin wax scented candles are so bad for your health that the government keeps trying to ban them.  

We now have houseplants. (I know – it’s proper grown up round here.)

Our house smells of…. well, nothing most of the time, according to the people who venture over the threshold. In fact I reckon our home is cleaner these days because we’re not relying on the synthetic scents to mask an under 7’s entire team football kit or the dog’s basket anymore.

It also means strong smells out in the real world even stronger. Don’t get me wrong, the occasional waft of non-bio from the freshly laundered wardrobe of friends and family can be very pleasant, even jealousy inducing. But often that ‘clean smell’ we never used to notice becomes a bit overpowering.  

I never thought going zero waste and the road it would lead us down would mean booking the earliest slot at the hairdressers because the build-up of scents and chemicals makes me want to gag.  

I’m not going to lie to you, our youngest still has his lockdown ‘haircut’. It is probably borderline abuse by now. But at least the mask will help a bit when we can no longer avoid the literally dizzying heights of the high street salon.  

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