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WHY ARE DIAPER SERVICES
DISAPPEARING?

Call the numbers of the three diaper services listed in the Boston, Massachusetts Yellow Pages and you'll get the same message: "The number you have called is not in service at this time." Ten years ago, the disposable diaper was the soiled symbol of a throwaway culture; today, it's the cloth diaper that has, well, bottomed out. Over the last few years, diaper services in the Boston area have shut their doors, leaving parents who prefer cloth scrambling for alternatives.

Boston is far from unique--what's happening in the Northeast is representative of a nationwide trend. According to the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS), the 400 diaper businesses that thrived in the late 1980s have dwindled to about 50 today.

For years, people automatically assumed that plastic-and-paper disposables did more damage to the environment than reusable cotton diapers. By 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, many states were considering legislation to tax or ban disposable diapers. That same year, sales in the diaper service industry reached a high of $200 million. In the Boston area, 16 competitors flourished; the biggest, Dydee Diaper, tripled its business in less than three years.

Facing a decline in market share, disposable companies launched an advertising blitz questioning just how "green" cotton diapers were, from the pesticides used to grow the cotton to the volume of water used to wash them. Procter & Gamble, makers of Pampers and Luvs, set the debate in motion when it ran an ad showing tree roots in compost, and a voiceover stating: "Ninety days ago, this was a disposable diaper." (After several lawsuits based on the fact that there were no composting facilities for disposables, Procter & Gamble pulled the commercial.)

But the damage had already been done. By 1997, Dydee, along with three quarters of the nation's diaper services, had folded its last diaper. "Disposables spent millions of dollars trying to muddy the waters," says Brian Smithson of NADS. Most services, he says, are small, family-owned businesses, without the capital to buy billboards or pay for TV commercials.

Larry Martin, manager of the family-owned Tidee Didee in Portland, Oregon, says he's never been able to afford advertising, and he adds that if his father-in-law didn't own the business, he'd have to close up. "We've been able to absorb the loss of business," he says. "Others haven't been so lucky."

Today, the disposable makers saturate the airwaves, hyping drier, more sanitary and more convenient products. Besides, washing diapers is a messy business, and without services to do the dirty work, many advocates of cloth diapers find their resolve weakening. And new mothers, torn between the different options, are often "started off right" with free disposable diaper packs in the hospital maternity wards and nurseries.

"I cleaned my own diapers because the service went out of business, and I couldn't imagine switching to disposables," says Boston mother Michele Daves, who notes with pride that her two sons (ages two and five) have never worn a plastic diaper. "But unless parents are personally motivated, this isn't a realistic alternative."

Crushed by the disposables monopoly, the cloth diaper industry has also been abandoned by the national environmental community. Once staunch defenders of reusables, conservation groups now argue that competing social and ecological concerns make it difficult to evaluate the environmentally correct position. "We've come to appreciate that downstream solid waste is only one of many public health and resource use issues associated with diaper technology," says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. These include, says Hershkowitz, pediatric dermatology, adult incontinence, upstream resources, manufacturing impacts, an increase in women in the work force, and more out-of-home child care.

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Written by: Linda Baker. Article originally published in E/The Environmental Magazine.


RELATED LINKS:

CONTACTS:

National Association of Diaper Services 994 Old Eagle School Road, Suite 1019 Wayne, PA 19087 Tel. (610) 971-4850





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