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The Dirt on Disposable Diapers

Cloth vs Disposable Diapers: it’s not just the earth that gets a bum deal

Once, there was this Elder that attended one of my Green Mama talks. She shocked all of us when she proclaimed that “any parent who used disposable diapers was evil.” As a parent who has used disposable diapers, I didn’t agree with this and, of course, as The Green Mama I consider it a version of “blaming the victim.” It’s not parents that are to blame for all the problems with the disposable diaper industry. This woman, however, had spent years in jail because of her work blocking the logging of old growth forests much of it which was pulped for ridiculous low-quality uses such as disposable diapers. There’s no reason to get extreme, but disposable diapers aren’t just the easy (but relatively expensive) diapering choice that they may seem. There are disposable diapers that do a better job–such as ones that DON’T use old growth forest (but it isn’t just the default!) or don’t use toxic chlorine bleach. There are even biodegradable hybrid systems such as those by gDiapers. Even greener disposables, though, have their downsides such as those listed below, expense, or delaying potty training.

The Four Big Yucks of Disposable Diapers

1. Waste

In a home with one baby being diapered, disposable diapers can make up half of that entire home’s waste. It is the third largest single consumer item found in landfills and accounts for about 4 percent of all solid waste. Disposable diapers dumped in landfills will never biodegrade (become soil), but it is possible that the plastics in the diaper will photo-degrade and become tiny plastic particles that can end up in water, soil, and even our bodies. It is also possible that the fecal matter can release bacteria and live viruses into the surrounding environment.

2. Resource Use

Most disposable diapers are produced using trees, plastic, chlorine bleach, and absorbent gels. Each of these elements has an environmental impact, from possible old-growth forest depletion (yes, thousand-year-old trees in Canada have been cut down to produce pulp for making diapers) to the production of dioxin, a danger- ous toxin. One estimate put the resource use of disposable diapers per baby, per year at 136 kilograms (300 pounds) of wood, 22 kilograms (50 pounds) of petro- leum, and 9 kilograms (20 pounds) of chlorine.

3. Toxicity Concerns

Babies who use cloth diapers get fewer diaper rashes, don’t need barrier creams for healthy skin, and tend to potty train earlier.
Cloth diapers usually have simple ingredients, like cotton or hemp interiors and cotton, wool, or polyester outers. Disposable diapers, on the other hand, have numerous chemical ingredients that their manufacturers are not required to disclose. These ingredients can include polyethylene film, polypropylene plastic, bleached paper pulp, petrolatum, stearyl alcohol, hot melts (glue), elastic, cellulose tissue, perfume, and SAP (an absorbent gelling material). Many of these ingredients have been linked with possible negative health effects. SAP absorbs the natural oils and moisture in a baby’s developing skin and can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.

Some studies suggest disposable diapers release VOCs, including toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and dipentene, all of which have been linked to nega- tive health effects. A study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found a link between disposable diapers (with plastic) and a consistent rise in scrotum temperatures, which they believe may be linked to male infertility.

Dioxin is released into the environment whenever paper (or rayon or plastic) is bleached using chlorine (yes, as in what is done to produce disposable dia- pers). This bleaching process makes the diapers white, but it does not make them safer or more sanitary. Indeed, trace amounts of dioxin have been found in disposable diapers.

4. Diaper Rash

Diaper rash is a relatively new phenomenon, despite being common today. Before disposable diapers, only 7.1 percent of 1,505 babies studied had suffered from diaper rash. Now, studies suggest that at least half of all babies will exhibit rash at least once during their diapering years. Diaper rash is caused by many factors, including exposure to too much moisture; irritation caused by the chemicals in baby products such as diaper wipes, bum creams, or laundry detergents; yeast infections, which are particularly common if a baby has been given antibiotics; food allergies or sensitivities; and chafing from diaper bindings or tight clothing.


The Research

The average child uses more than 7,000 diapers, which means diaper choices have a big impact both on the child’s health and on the planet. These impacts include: 1) making the diaper; 2) using the diaper; 3) disposing of the diaper; 4) transporting the diaper; and 5) the possibility of re-use (in the case of cloth). Also, consider the cost. Disposables cost a family roughly $800 per year (or $2,400 for three years), while cloth diapers will cost between $300 and $800 IN TOTAL. And they can be reused for many years to come, with successive children.

Diaper companies have spent millions of dollars on misleading studies and public relation campaigns to obscure the obvious greenness of cloth diapers. A 1990 Proctor & Gamble (manufacturers of Pampers) study claimed that cloth diapers use more energy than disposables. It was promptly debunked, but not before P&G spread the lie.

The most comprehensive, least biased studies, including ones from the Dutch and Canadian governments and the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) of the UK, have all found that cloth diapers are significantly better for the planet than disposable diapers. The Dutch report concluded that reusable diapers are up to seven times better for the environment. The Canadian study supported
the WEN study, which concluded that disposable diapers use 20 times more raw materials, 3 times more energy, 2 times as much water, and generate 60 times more waste than cloth diapers, when looking at the complete environmental footprint (from manufacturing to disposal) of both systems. The UK re-released a study on cloth diapers, or “nappies,” in 2008 that stated that under normal use (i.e., not routinely boiled, ironed, or tumbled dry) they were 40 percent better for the environment. And that’s not taking into account land use differences (which are thought to be significantly in favour of cloth).

And, don’t forget the wipes…

Part of diapering a baby is wiping up that cute little bum. Diaper wipes pose many of the same problems as diapers themselves: toxins, allergens, and many other chemicals hard on (or dangerous to) a baby’s skin. Wipes create an enormous amount of waste: from the big plastic containers they come in, to the pollution associated with the transport of raw materials from around the world, to, finally, their fate in landfill. And, there is the expense

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