Endless rows of diapers on our backyard clothesline were a staple of my childhood.
Being the ’70s to the early ’80s, my mother was an anachronism; at this point in the US, after over a decade on the market, disposable diapers had become the common choice, but my mother covered every single one of us six children in cloth. She wasn’t part of any organized environmental movement, to her it was just common sense that a re-usable alternative had to be better than disposing of daily binloads of plastic (Though to her the best option of all was to let us play bare-bottomed outside, contributing to our neighborhood reputation as “the naked family”).
2% of U.S. garbage
Three decades later, I questioned her choice. My sister- pregnant with
her second child and tired of washing and toting around dirty diapers-
had unearthed research pointing to the negative environmental impact of
cloth. Her husband, a not atypical Seattle resident who composts, bikes
to work and pushes a manual lawnmower favored re-usables, but according
to her environmentalist mother friends: the water, heat and chemicals
used to clean the cloth was just as harmful to the environment as all
the plastic diapers she would be contributing to a landfill.
Two years later, she disposes of an average of 10 diapers daily for her 2 children (Diapers contribute to roughly two percent of US garbage).
Now, four months pregnant, I am faced with the same decision. How
easy it would be to simply follow my sister’s lead, but I am my
mother’s child- to my husband’s horror, our kitchen is overflowing with
all the plastic bags, bottles and yogurt containers that I swear I’ll
find a use for.
Knowing that the average child goes
through nearly 3000 pairs of diapers per year, I fear if I go with
disposables my instincts will stop me from changing them more than once
daily and my child will suffer unnecessary rashes, not to mention the
odor. Sure that there is an alternative, I decided to investigate
rumors of biodegradable diapers and flushable liners, and along the way
I discovered a surprising new trend.
Extreme caution before composting a diaper
After days reading articles on the politics, research and all the lastest inventions, here is what I have concluded:
Biodegradable diapers don’t break down in standard landfills. Though there is at least one company that suggests composting them yourself using vermicomposting (worms), it seems this could be a health hazard: “For reasons of health and sanitation, CIWMB does not recommend vermicomposting diapers at home, and suggests extreme caution if you attempt to do so”.
The best disposable alternatives
(not taking into account disposable inserts) are the greener options.
Made with unbleached cotton and wood pulp, Seventh Generation, Tender
Care Plus and Tushies are chemical-, and chlorine-free.
There is substantial evidence that reusable cotton diapers are the greener alternative. “Disposable
nappies have nearly twice the environmental impact of home laundered
nappies, and over two and a half times the impact of service washed
Proctor and Gamble fights legistlation to limit disposables
The belief that disposables and cotton reusables are equally harmful to
the environment, may be misleading and the result of an early ’90s PR
war. Faced with legislation in 24 US states to limit the use of
disposables, Proctor and Gamble (P&G) poured millions into research
which concluded that cloth diaper laundering consume more water and
pollute more than plastics.
The cloth diaper association fought
back with a life-cycle study that found that disposables produce 7
times more solid waste and 3 times more waste in manufacturing.
The Women’s International Network
took things a step further and with their own study (finding that
throwaway diapers use 20 times more raw materials, three times more
energy, twice as much water, and generate 60 times more waste) which
they used to challenge P&G’s claims before the UK’s Advertising
Standards Authority. After a ruling that its claims were misleading,
P&G withdrew them.
My research left me with the
sensation that it was once again a story of big money protecting an
industry (disposables). In 10 years will we be discussing this issue
the way we now discuss the breastfeeding controversy: how could anyone
have thought formula could beat the nutrients in a mother’s milk?
Though putting all the negative
environmental results aside, I can understand how women, like my
sister, don’t want to spend extra time in the laundry room. I hadn’t
finished with my research yet.
The hybrid diaper
I had heard about a new “hybrid” solution: a flushable liner with reusable cloth outer pants. I went to the website of gDiapers to find out more.
They describe the process as a
two-part system where a flushable inner liner can be snapped into a
reusable pair of outer pants. When the liner is soiled it can be
removed and flushed and the pants fitted with a new liner ready for
I watched their video and it did
look simple, but the inner lining is fairly large and would flushing it
really make the disposal problem disappear? They have an online answer:
“When you flush… you’re putting poop
where it belongs. You’d be amazed how much baby poop from disposable
diapers ends up in the landfill where the potential health risk and
ground water contamination from viruses and bacteria in feces are real
threats… Once your baby’s waste goes through the sewage treatment
process to remove pathogens and odors, the resulting solids left over
can be recovered and converted to a valuable fertilizer… So, a
wonderful circular process – what sustainability is about – and you’re
actually helping with each flush you make!!”
There was a certain logic to
disposing of fecal matter with that of grown-ups, but better yet, when
they were awarded the first “Cradle to Cradle” certification. Finally, an outside source had given a diaper an unbiased stamp of environmental approval. I was ready to order.
At their online store, I found their
outer pants were quite stylish (with fun colors like global blue and
gumdrop purple) at prices comparable to regular disposables ($25 for
the starter kit of 2 outer pants & 10 flushables, $49 for refill of
Proud of my new solution, I was ready to commit to flushables,
but before concluding my research, I checked out one more
too-strange-to-be true website… to find I’d been one-upped by a group
of women who practice “elimination communication” (EC).
It’s a diaperless alternative and while it sounds far-fetched, there are a substantial number of mothers who
are learning to read their baby’s signals (such as squirming,
vocalizing, tensing the face, having a look of “inner concentration”)
to determine when to take their infant to the toilet where they use
their own sound cues (usually a watery sound such as “psss”) to
Infants only weeks old are being
held over a toilet bowel to do their thing. Diaper free parents swear
by its success, touting the special bond they develop with their
infants through this extra communication, as well as the total
elimination of diaper rash. It sounds slightly out there, but according
to a New York Times article, this is just my cultural perspective.
early toilet training, there is a broad body of knowledge and
experience to draw on. Parents in at least 75 countries, including
India, Kenya and Greenland, embrace the practice, with Chinese babies
often wearing pants with split bottoms for easy squatting (available
for $1 in Chinatown, according to savvy mothers in New York).”
Of course, this type of
“communication” can only take place when the mother spends a
significant amount of time with her infant. She needs to be there to
read the signals and for working mothers this is even more difficult
than bringing a breast pump to the office. I read on the diaperfreebaby
site that EC can be done part-time.
It dawns on me that perhaps I could
invent my own third way: I could invest in a starter pack of gdiapers,
but try to read my infants signals to get to the toilet in time to
avoid wasting a disposable liner. I now have to sell my husband on the
concept of learning this new language and split bottom baby pants. I
flashback to an image of my bare-bottomed younger siblings peeing on
our lawn and wonder if maybe my mother had it right all along.