I have three children in diapers-a nine month old, a two year old, and afour year old who wets at night. In rough numbers, this means ourhousehold has changed more than 20,000 dirty diapers in four years. Now, I'm not a glutton for punishment, and like all working mothers Idon't have a lot of spare time. But I've chosen cloth diapers overdisposables from the beginning. Like breastfeeding and drug-freechildbirth, cloth diapering has always seemed to me to be the most"natural" approach. Yet, even in an environmentally conscious town likeBoulder, Colorado, I'm surprised at how few parents use cloth. Some areput off by the perceived inconvenience; others have argued that clothdiapers are actually more harmful to the environment than disposables.To aid you in your own decision, or to help you educate your friends whoare new parents, here is a current look at some of the issues involvedin cloth and disposable diapering.
Which Is Better for the Environment?To most, the environmental impact of disposable paper-and-plastic versusreusable cotton diapers seems clear-cut. But delve into the facts, andthings begin to get murky. The debate started to get heated in 1990, the 20th anniversary year ofEarth Day. Environmental awareness was at a peak, and many states wereconsidering initiatives to tax or ban the sale of disposable diapers.Procter & Gamble, the nation's largest manufacturer of disposablediapers, fearing a loss of market share, commissioned a study by ArthurD. Little, Inc., on the environmental impact of disposable diapers. Thestudy came to the conclusion that, lo and behold, disposables wereactually no worse for the environment than cloth diapers. Procter &Gamble followed with an ad showing tree roots in compost, stating, "90days ago this was a disposable diaper." After several lawsuits based onthe fact that composting facilities for disposable diapers do notactually exist, the ad was pulled, but not until millions of parents hadread and believed it. Meanwhile, the National Association of DiaperServices sponsored several reports of its own, prepared by consultantCarl Lehrburger, showing that there was a clear environmental advantageto 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 ofassumptions you start with-How many diaper changes will a baby gothrough in a day? Is the life of a cloth diaper 100 uses or 150?-willgreatly influence the outcome of the study. Ultimately, the Little studywas deemed misleading by the Advertising Standards Authority in GreatBritain, and Proctor & Gamble was prohibited from mentioning the studyin its advertising. However, public opinion had already been influenced.
Some of the facts: 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown in landfillseach year, taking as many as 500 years to decompose. Disposable diapersmake up the third largest source of solid waste in landfills, afternewspapers and food and beverage containers-a significant fact,considering they are a single product, used by a limited portion of thepopulation.
1) It takes upwards of 82,000 tons of plastic and 1.3 milliontons of wood pulp, or a quarter-million trees, to manufacture thedisposable diapers that cover the bottoms of 90 percent of the babiesborn in the US.
2) Some will argue that in areas where water is scarce, disposables are thebetter environmental choice. However, carrying this argument to theextreme, we should be wearing disposable clothes, and using paper platesand plastic utensils. Washing cloth diapers at home uses 50 to 70gallons of water every three days-about the same as a toilet-trainedchild or adult flushing the toilet five to six times a day. A diaperservice puts its diapers through an average of 13 water changes, butbecause of the economies of scale, uses less water and energy per diaperthan one laundry load at home.
Today, as a rule diaper services use biodegradable detergents notharmful phosphates. The waste water produced from washing diapers isbenign, 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 harmfulto the atmosphere, is used in whitening diaper service diapers, but theenvironmental impact is far greater in the paper-bleaching process usedin making disposable diapers.
4) Cotton, of course, is not without its evils. Conventionally grown, it isa major user of harmful pesticides. There are, however, severalcompanies offering organically grown, unbleached cotton diapers as analternative (see "Good News" in this issue for more information onorganic cotton).
Ultimately, instead of getting bogged down in each side's scientificdata, the most commonsense approach is to use commonsense. Weigh theimpact of manufacturing and disposing of 8,000 paper-and-plastic diapersover the average diapering period of a child versus that of a few dozencotton diapers, and decide for yourself which is better for theenvironment.
CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE -->Written by: By Jane McConnell
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