Is there any green in the dirty diaper debate?

Photo: Wiberg
How can parents keep the convenience of disposable diapers without leaving a large carbon footprint? 60 years of discussion The dirty diaper debate has been going on almost since 1950, the year that New York housewife Marion Donovan invented the disposable diaper. The debate has pitted large conglomerates like Procter and Gamble (marketers of Pampers®) against environmentalists and landfill waste managers. Mountains of diapers According to the Statistics Canada 2006 Census Spotlight Report, there were just over 337,000 babies born in Canada in 2004. With an average baby using almost 1500 diapers yearly, that's over a million diapers destined for the closest dump. Disposable diapers are the third largest consumer waste item following newspapers and beverage containers. No surprise that millions of tons of diapers are causing space problems for waste managers around the globe, particularly since they don't decompose quickly in an airtight landfill. It takes one disposable diaper 500 years to decompose. The EPA has also noted that a significant portion of disposable diapers is actually biodegradable human waste. Health danger for children Leaving aside the smelly issues of human waste, there are some disturbing health questions about the chemicals in disposable diapers. The super absorbent chemical gel Sodium Polyacrylate (SAP), used to sop up wetness, has been banned for use in tampons since 1985 because of its connection to toxic shock syndrome. While there has been no specific research study done on SAP in diapers there are issues about increased skin irritations and bleeding in the perineal and scrotal tissue of some babies. Of greater concern is the endocrine disruptor dioxin, a byproduct of the chlorine bleaching process. The EPA lists dioxin as one of the most toxic chemicals linked to immune system suppression and genetic damage. There are also bronchial irritants such as toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, styrene, and isopropylbenzene that have some researchers wondering if disposable diapers are part of the problem with the growing rate of asthma among children. Convenience and the environment In the past the dirty diaper debate focused on how much energy was consumed between cloth and disposable. Cloth uses too much water and detergent compared to the one billion trees worldwide per year to acquire the wood pulp for disposable diapers. But it's the convenience of disposable diapers that remains the key selling point. The new disposables There are plenty of non-traditional diaper products offering the same convenience of regular disposables. Seventh Generation now sells chlorine free disposables. Combining the best of both worlds is the new flushable gDiapers, which is made up of a colourful cloth pant and snap-in liner that uses inserts made of fluffed wood pulp. The pants and liners are re-usable and the liner is flushed down the toilet. The Nature Boy and Girl disposable diaper uses cornstarch-based material instead of plastic and chlorine free pulp. If you're curious about cloth diapers but don't know where to start the Montreal-based company Bummis offers a cotton diapering kit to get you started. Whether it's cloth or disposable, the Consumers' Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests you choose your diapers according to the environmental needs around you. If you live in a community with landfill issues then choose cloth, if you live in a community suffering from water shortages, then choose disposables. Joan McDougall is a freelance writer in Bedford, Nova Scotia.