I have three children in diapers-a nine month old, a two year old, and a four year old who wets at night. In rough numbers, this means our household has changed more than 20,000 dirty diapers in four years. Now, I'm not a glutton for punishment, and like all working mothers I don't have a lot of spare time. But I've chosen cloth diapers over disposables from the beginning. Like breastfeeding and drug-free childbirth, cloth diapering has always seemed to me to be the most "natural" approach. Yet, even in an environmentally conscious town like Boulder, Colorado, I'm surprised at how few parents use cloth. Some are put off by the perceived inconvenience; others have argued that cloth diapers are actually more harmful to the environment than disposables. To aid you in your own decision, or to help you educate your friends who are new parents, here is a current look at some of the issues involved in cloth and disposable diapering.
Which Is Better for the Environment? To most, the environmental impact of disposable paper-and-plastic versus reusable cotton diapers seems clear-cut. But delve into the facts, and things begin to get murky. The debate started to get heated in 1990, the 20th anniversary year of Earth Day. Environmental awareness was at a peak, and many states were considering initiatives to tax or ban the sale of disposable diapers. Procter & Gamble, the nation's largest manufacturer of disposable diapers, fearing a loss of market share, commissioned a study by Arthur D. Little, Inc., on the environmental impact of disposable diapers. The study came to the conclusion that, lo and behold, disposables were actually no worse for the environment than cloth diapers. Procter & Gamble followed with an ad showing tree roots in compost, stating, "90 days ago this was a disposable diaper." After several lawsuits based on the fact that composting facilities for disposable diapers do not actually exist, the ad was pulled, but not until millions of parents had read and believed it. Meanwhile, the National Association of Diaper Services sponsored several reports of its own, prepared by consultant Carl Lehrburger, showing that there was a clear environmental advantage to using cloth diapers.
So which study was right? It depends on your bias. Sponsored research, or any research for that matter, is inherently subjective. The set of assumptions you start with-How many diaper changes will a baby go through in a day? Is the life of a cloth diaper 100 uses or 150?-will greatly influence the outcome of the study. Ultimately, the Little study was deemed misleading by the Advertising Standards Authority in Great Britain, and Proctor & Gamble was prohibited from mentioning the study in its advertising. However, public opinion had already been influenced.
Some of the facts: 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown in landfills each year, taking as many as 500 years to decompose. Disposable diapers make up the third largest source of solid waste in landfills, after newspapers and food and beverage containers-a significant fact, considering they are a single product, used by a limited portion of the population.
1) It takes upwards of 82,000 tons of plastic and 1.3 million tons of wood pulp, or a quarter-million trees, to manufacture the disposable diapers that cover the bottoms of 90 percent of the babies born in the US.
2) Some will argue that in areas where water is scarce, disposables are the better environmental choice. However, carrying this argument to the extreme, we should be wearing disposable clothes, and using paper plates and plastic utensils. Washing cloth diapers at home uses 50 to 70 gallons of water every three days-about the same as a toilet-trained child or adult flushing the toilet five to six times a day. A diaper service puts its diapers through an average of 13 water changes, but because of the economies of scale, uses less water and energy per diaper than one laundry load at home.
Today, as a rule diaper services use biodegradable detergents not harmful phosphates. The waste water produced from washing diapers is benign, while the waste water from the manufacture of the pulp, paper, and plastics used in disposable diapers contains dioxins, solvents, sludge, and heavy metals.
3) Chlorine bleach, whose manufacture is harmful to the atmosphere, is used in whitening diaper service diapers, but the environmental impact is far greater in the paper-bleaching process used in making disposable diapers.
4) Cotton, of course, is not without its evils. Conventionally grown, it is a major user of harmful pesticides. There are, however, several companies offering organically grown, unbleached cotton diapers as an alternative (see "Good News" in this issue for more information on organic cotton).
Ultimately, instead of getting bogged down in each side's scientific data, the most commonsense approach is to use commonsense. Weigh the impact of manufacturing and disposing of 8,000 paper-and-plastic diapers over the average diapering period of a child versus that of a few dozen cotton diapers, and decide for yourself which is better for the environment.
CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE --> Written by: By Jane McConnell. Article originally appeared in Mothering Magazine.
Jane McConnell and her husband, Jeff Heyman, share the diapering responsiabilities for Jack (9 months), Henry (2), and Lucy (4). She works as a part-time freelance writer and an associate editor for Mothering from her home in Boulder, Colorado.
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