Published on April 27th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans
Diapers are a messy business, literally and figuratively. According to the National Association of Diaper Services, an average baby goes through a whopping 5,000 diapers before he or she is ready to use the potty.
The Association does not specify whether or not those diapers are cloth or disposable, and it’s probably just as well; deciding which option is better for the environment is complicated, no matter the numbers in diaper statistics.
On the surface, disposable diapers seem the obvious culprit when it comes to harmful environmental consequences. Ten years ago, disposables made up over 2 percent of all garbage in landfills, according to the last collection of information the Environmental Protection Agency made in 1998.
The plastic components of these diapers are not biodegradable and often, the diapers are not disposed of in a way that protects nearby water supplies from toxic runoff. Bleaching the paper parts requires the use of chlorine, which sends noxious chemicals into the atmosphere. Clearly, disposable diapers are not even close to being eco-friendly.
So how about cloth diapers? The question of comfort and breathability aside, cloth diapers have a very recyclable and eco-friendly image. After all, cloth diapers can be used over and over again and never need to be tossed into the garbage bin. But the repeated uses require repeated washes, and cloth diapers, as unlikely as it seems, contribute greatly to the over-consumption of water due to frequent launderings that keep baby clean and comfortable.
Many diaper-laundering guides suggest running a load of diapers through 2 wash cycles and preparing a new piece of unbleached fabric can require up to 6 wash cycles to make sure naturally occurring oils do not come into contact with baby’s sensitive skin!
What about humanure? It is possible to recycle human waste in a safe way as long as it is not used on vegetables or fruit shrubs and parents have successfully composted used disposable diapers. Cloth diapers can be scraped and then soaked in a mild vinegar solution before washing en masse, and perhaps the laundering does not need to be so frequent if a sturdy diaper pail can hold some extras.
Some say that there is absolutely no straight answer. Even newly designed biodegradable disposable diapers made of cornstarch do not pose a solution: they end up in landfills too and landfills are not designed to facilitate the process of disintegration. Organic cotton diapers and hemp diapers are available on websites like http://www.ecobaby.com but they require as much water to launder as conventional cotton diapers. Maybe someday, we will have diaper recycling services like those in some parts of Canada — a service comes around to pick up used diapers that are then recycled into other kinds of goods. In the meantime, our own personal values are almost all we have to make this decision: what’s worse—filling the landfill, or using too much water?