The Diaper Dilemma: Disposable, Cloth, or “Hybrid”?
Readers of last issue’s column about raising children in nontoxic, sustainable ways have asked me to follow up with thoughts about one of the omnipresent realities of parenthood: diapers.
The debate used to be cloth versus disposable. Now the picture is a little more complex because the categories have expanded. Disposable diapers generally are made from bleached tree-farm wood fiber, petroleum-based polypropylene, adhesives, synthetic rubber, and sodium polyacrylate crystals (for absorbency). The main draw is that they are incredibly convenient. The green side: Some diapers, such as those from Seventh Generation, are made with unbleached fibers. The downside: All go into landfills, making diapers the third-largest contributor to landfill garbage nationally; excrement goes into landfills without being treated as a biohazard; the diapers take hundreds of years to decompose; bleaching is a very toxic process; and the diapers are a single-use product requiring tree-farm wood fiber, petroleum products, and other materials, as well as the use of resources (energy, water, etc.) and thereby creation of pollutants in making a new diaper. I’m not a big fan of these, as you might be able to guess. One additional note—hundreds of studies have shown sodium polyacrylate crystals to be entirely nontoxic to humans and nature, but none have analyzed the effects of absorption through the skin, which may be a factor in Toxic Shock Syndrome.
In the distant past, using cloth diapers necessitated nasty diaper dunks in toilets to get rid of hangers-on, so to speak, the hazards of not-so-safe safety pins, and lots and lots of laundry. No more. Those who do use cloth diapers now usually use a diaper service, such as The Cotton Club (www.cottonclubdiapers.com), which serves all of Butte County and up to Corning and down to Yuba City. Pampered Earth Diaper Service (www.pamperedearth.vpweb.com) covers Nevada County. Here’s how it works: Once a week you get a new batch of clean diapers. You use an exterior wrap, often made of polyurethane-coated polyester and held together with Velcro or snaps, over the cotton diaper. When the diaper is soiled Number One, you just put the cotton diaper into the diaper pail and forget about it. When it’s Number Two, the diaper service does ask you to try to dislodge what you can before you put the diaper in the diaper pail, but I’ve never resorted to toilet dunks, and those good folks have not asked it of me. At the end of the week, out go the bags of soiled diapers, and new bags show up that same day. Sound easy? You do have to launder the wraps, which can get a little messy at times, but that’s nothing like doing all the diapers yourself, as my parents did. The green side: Diapers do not go to landfills for a good while—after their useful life, they can be also used as rags; the diapers biodegrade in less than a year; wraps tend to get passed around secondhand; poop goes to a sewage-treatment plant, which is a much better place for this biological hazard than a landfill; and there’s no plastic involved. Unfortunately, there is no organic cotton option offered locally. The downside: There is a good bit of water and energy used per wash, though industrial-sized washers and dryers are more efficient than home models; bleaching of cotton diapers is very toxic; cotton is a very pesticide-intensive crop, using up to 10 percent of all the pesticides used in the world every year; and the wraps will take decades, if not hundreds of years, to decompose when their reuse is through.
There now exists what some call a “hybrid diaper,” which means you keep part of it (the outside cover, which Velcros or snaps) and flush or compost the rest (the inside). A good example of this setup is gDiapers (www.gdiapers.com), and it’s received Cradle-to-Cradle certification, a remarkable achievement for a consumer product. (See www.mbdc.com for information about this certification and why you should be impressed and looking for it.) The green side: Nothing’s filling a landfill; poop goes where poop should go; there is no plastic used; and diapers that are only wet can be composted, breaking down in 50 to 150 days. The downside: The inside is still a single-use product requiring tree-farm wood fiber and sodium polyacrylate crystals and all the energy, water, and other resources that go into a new product and that create pollutants as part of manufacture; and the wraps will take decades, and perhaps hundreds of years, to decompose after reuse is finished.
All things considered, if one were to choose the disposable route, the hybrid diaper offers almost all the same convenience and many more ecological benefits than the typical disposable. But is the hybrid better than cloth? Overall, I would say it’s a wash.