The Dirty Truth About Diapers

November, 2014

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One of the first and most challenging environmental impact decisions you make as a new parent is how to diaper your baby. Your baby will go through about 6 to 12 diapers a day ~ or about 9,000 diaper changes by the time he/she is potty-trained.  New parents often receive an initial supply of free disposable diapers at the hospital where their baby is born and never investigate other diaper options.  This is such a common practice (and effective marketing scheme of Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly-Clarke, manufacturers of disposable diapers) that now there are generations of families who have never tried cloth diapers.

Zero Waste Humboldt’s focus is to increase public awareness and promote habits that prevent waste.  ZWH targets all single-use products and packaging, and seeks convenient alternatives for our daily lives.  Because of their negative environmental impacts, disposable baby diapers are high on the list.  

nid%3D3955%7Ctitle%3D%7Cdesc%3D%7Clink%3DnoneA disposable diaper takes more than 100 years to decompose in a modern landfill.  A local diaper service with 60-plus clients generally processes 4,125 diapers per week—preventing 214,500 diapers per year from entering the landfill.  The Environmental Protection Agency reports that over 20 billion disposable diapers are dumped in U.S. landfills each year, accounting for more than 3.5 million tons of waste. (“Environmental Impacts of Disposable Diapers,” Livestrong.com, 2010)

As with all single use products and packaging, disposable diapers have multiple significant impacts on the environment: the natural resources and energy consumed to manufacture plastic and pulp-layered disposable diapers, their packaging and the fuel required to transport them. The Good Human, a website for discussion of environmental issues, points out that we lose more than 200,000 trees annually to the manufacture of disposable baby diapers in the U.S. alone.  It takes 3.4 billion gallons of fuel oil every year to make diapers.  

The “bottom” line is that disposable diapers use 20 times more raw materials, two times more water and three times more energy to make than cloth diapers.  Therefore, even if we were able to compost or recycle single-use diapers locally, natural resources and energy consumed are still significant. Methane gas from landfills and incinerator air emissions are also major causes of destruction to the ozone layer and global warming.

So, if you’re a new parent, what do you do?  The good news is that it’s much easier to use cloth diapers now than it was even a decade ago.  There are many new designs for washable diapers, diaper inserts, diaper covers, different sizes, shapes, and containers for soiled diapers.  Snaps, Velcro tabs, and fitted diaper covers have replaced the old pins. Commercial diaper services also typically have more energy efficient washing and drying equipment (using much less water than you would use washing at home) and schedule their pick ups and deliveries to minimize mileage. Currently, however, there’s only one service in Humboldt County, Baby’s Best Diaper Service, recently purchased by Clair Miller.  

Another common strategy for families who plan a variety of child-rearing activities together to save money and build community is to handle diaper washing and drying cooperatively.  Similar to play groups and childcare coops, families take turns or compensate a parent who works at home.  An option for parents who wash diapers at home is to plan for a full load of diapers-only once or twice a week.  

It’s not always easy to stick to your environmental convictions. Many childcare centers require disposable diapers.  Cloth diapers can be too impractical for hours of travel by plane or bus.  But even when parents must compromise to use disposable baby diapers sometimes, by using washable cloth diapers as much as possible, they have kept thousands of diapers per child from landfill disposal.

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