Fall 2002 Issue: Living Economies
YES! But How?
–Repost of article by Anna McClain:
Anna McClain -I am stymied by the new-age-old question: cloth or disposable diapers? Some say that the water required to wash cloth diapers is more damaging to our planet than the waste associated with disposables. What do you think?AlisonSan Francisco, California
Cloth. Washing cloth diapers at home uses 50 to 70 gallons of water every three days, according to Mothering Magazine, “about the same as a toilet-trained child or adult flushing the toilet five to six times a day.” “It takes 440 to 880 pounds of wood pulp and 286 pounds of plastic (including packaging) per year to supply one baby with disposable diapers,” according to Environment Canada. Dioxin, a chemical on the EPA’s list of most toxic cancer-linked chemicals, is a by-product of this manufacturing process. By contrast, less than 22 pounds of cotton is enough to supply one baby with reusable cotton diapers for two years. A study by the British Landbank Consultancy determined that, factoring in cotton growing, the manufacture and use of disposable diapers requires twice the water use and three times the energy of cloth diapers. (See www.realnappycompany.com/NappyFacts.htm.)
Disposables also pose risks during use. The wood pulp, plastic, sodium polyacrylate (which turns urine into gel), dyes, and fragrances in continual contact with a baby’s skin worry some of those who study infertility and hormone-mimicking chemicals. Several components of disposables (toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, styrene, and isopropylbenzene), according to a report in the October 1999 issue of the Archives of Environmental Health, are bronchial irritants associated with asthma.
Each year, 18 billion disposable diapers burden US landfills, combining plastic, wood pulp, fecal matter and urine, and biohazards, including live vaccines from immunizations. The bundled fecal matter requires 200-500 years to decompose and can contaminate ground water. In contrast, waste water from washing diapers is treated, at least in most municipalities.
Finally, Jane McConnell in Mothering Magazinein June 1998 notes that babies in cloth diapers are changed more frequently, a factor that reduces diaper rash. As a bonus, she says that a child in cloth diapers actually knows when he or she is wet, and hence, is toilet trained earlier. Given all this, I’d choose cloth as the bottom line.–Anna McClain