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WHY ARE DIAPER SERVICES
DISAPPEARING?

In addition to life-cycle analysis studies, Hershkowitz acknowledges that a kind of eco-fatalism is responsible for the cloth diaper's fall from grace. "What options do we have on this issue?" he asks. "Nine out of 10 Americans with children in diapers prefer disposable diapers. Trying to find ways to subsidize diaper services is probably not the best way for a professional environmental advocate to spend her or his time."

With friends like these, advocates of reusables are pinning their hopes on city and state officials who are alarmed at the enormous increase in disposable diapers as a percentage of solid waste in landfills. "We definitely think disposables are a problem," says Peter Spendelow, a waste reduction specialist at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. "Think about all the attention that is given to plastics and bottle recycling. Well, there are now more dirty diapers in the landfill than rigid plastics combined."

In Seattle, disposable diapers increased from 2.5 percent of all residential waste in 1988 to 3.3 percent in 1994-1995. In Portland, waste studies indicate that the number of diapers in the waste stream increased by 10 percent from 1992 to 1994.

Solid waste concerns have already jump-started a return to cloth diapers in Europe. The cities of Vienna and Munich now subsidize the cost of cloth diapers to offset costs incurred by municipal waste disposal, says Rick Froese, a cloth diaper manufacturer and exporter in Ontario, Canada. Since it costs hundreds of dollars for the cities to dump each ton of waste, notes Froese, "they save on the order of two tons of waste in the landfill site for every child who uses cloth, instead of disposables."

Encouraged by figures showing that cloth diaper use in parts of Austria has gone from almost nothing to 40 percent in the last few years, several diaper service operators hope to set up similar programs in the U.S. In conjunction with several nonprofit organizations, Smithson's Baby Diaper Service in Seattle hopes to win a grant from Seattle Solid Waste to subsidize the cost of diaper service for low-income families. There is also some evidence that cloth diapers may be gaining favor with a new generation of parents. "For the first time in five years, our numbers are up," says Larry Martin, manager of Tidee Didee in Portland. And according to NADS, a couple of diaper services in the Boston area may soon rise from the ashes.

Ultimately, however, like the triumph of formula over breast milk, the travails of diaper services reinforce the dominance of packaging, synthetics and big money in the baby care business. But eco-mommies and daddies shouldn't lose all hope. Ingenious entrepreneurs like Lyons Falls are already figuring out how to reclaim the fiber in used plastic diapers and make it into, of all things, recycled paper.

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


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