The Dirt on Diapers

There's no going around needing innumerable diapers when the little one arrives and the dirt is not only in the diaper - it will end sooner or later, for most people, well, in the dirt. The majority of people use conventional, disposable diapers. They're (supposedly) cheaper, less messy and make your kid more comfortable, leading to more sleep. We did not use these with our son (except of course for emergency situations when we ran out - beggars can't be choosers) but opted for cotton and then a mix of cotton/compostable, which we still use (to the chagrin of my parents, who proudly proclaim that they toilet trained me by 9 months - indeed, my first memory is being on the potty and watching my grandma pour water from one cup to another recursively- more (a lot more!) on toilet training coming up).

Disposable non-compostable diapers gave us both the shivers. First, we were both concerned that making our kid comfortable and allowing for more sleep was code for a bundle of chemicals that somehow allow your kid to sleep although they may be covered in their own waste. Not exactly the sound sleep we have in mind for our kid. Amongst the plethora of chemicals that lie on your baby's bottom in disposable diapers, quite possibly being absorbed into the skin are dioxin, a known carcinogen and sodium polyacrylate, which allows it to absorb the pee and may be linked to toxic shock syndrome as well as decreased fertility in boys. Third, the environmental consequences seemed too grave. The EPA estimates that 20 billion disposable diapers are dumped into landfills in the United States annually amounting to about 3.5 million tonnes of toxic waste (which then contaminates our groundwater). They are the third largest consumer item in landfill. Diapers release methane into the air, thus increasing our greenhouse gas emissions and take about 500 years to decompose. Then there's the amount of trees (more than 200,000 each year), oil (more than 3.4 billion gallons) and water that goes into making the diapers.

So we felt pretty good about our cotton choice in the beginning. Although we decided it was worth the extra pennies and we've certainly spent more than a few pennies on diapers in the past two years, we're not sure if it's even that much more than most people spend on conventional diapers. We've also been fortunate enough to live in areas (NYC then SF) that have cotton and compostable services and so never had to make the tough decision our parents and grandparents (rather our mothers and grandmothers) did when they diligently washed our cotton diapers. It's easy for me to say, never going through it, that I would have stuck to my guns, but considering how long it takes me to do the laundry now (when the family is running out underwear, it's shamefully true), I shouldn't be that quick to sound my trumpet (in fact, particularly as my belly has grown, it's hubby that scrambles up and down the 4 flights and does the loads).

Unfortunately, however, cotton is not the environment's best friend. First, it takes a tonne of water to make cotton (hemp on the other hand requires much less - why don't we have hemp diapers? I would buy that). Second, in an effort to increase cotton yields, a lot of cotton is grown with pesticides. Third, reusable diapers need a lot of washing, which begs the question - how much water do we use in washing our cotton diapers? If you use a service, you may want to ask them whether they have low-water use methods in their washing - some do, some don't. You may also wish to ask what soaps they are using in the washing process - is it a natural soap or one full of chemicals? How do they dry? Think of all the energy that goes in to that - I doubt commercial diapering services have enough land (if they had the sun) to simply hang them all out to dry. Finally, there's the greenhouse gas emissions from the transport of the diapers and the cleaning service.

Additionally, albeit in the beginning we are sure we would use cotton 100% of the time,  this is not entirely practical. If you are going on a drive, you don't want your kid sitting in a wet cotton diaper until you can figure out where to park and change him/her. You can't travel with cotton diapers and wipes (we can't forget about wipes!) - or at least - travel would be extremely difficult because you would have to wash and dry the diapers wherever you go. So very early on we used mostly cotton diapers and supplemented with compostable diapers at home. When we travelled, we opted for "natural" brands, hoping they were somehow better for our kid and the environment but we knew that if the locality we were in did not have a specific diaper compostable service, it didn't matter so much what we used, in terms of environmental impact. Unfortunately, you can't just compost your diapers in the backyard or even put it in your compost for the municipality to pick up as most - like ours in SF - do not accept fecal matter (Toronto on the other hand does - how fantastic is that?). This is because there is very little nitrogen in the diapers, they are mostly carbon and require very high heat to compost. So the only option may be to resort to a diaper service.

Be wary of brands stating they are natural, biodegradable and compostable and charging the extra buck for it. Some commercial cotton brands still use chemicals to absorb so take a look at the ingredients carefully and some use dyes to achieve that "green" look (I would say there's a misleading advertising/deceptive businesses claim in both cases there). While I am loathe to discredit or promote any brands on this blog, since we are getting down and dirty here and since we've tried a bunch, we use Bambo Nature diapers and wipes and have a diaper composting service come and pick them up weekly. They are comfortable for our son but not so much that we never know when he has peed and have the best environmental record we've found - for instance, they have the least chemicals, are compostable, are made only from trees from sustainable forests. While we don't have tonnes of time to research this and as we're not too trusting of companies, we are largely confirming our choice by the fact that Bambo Nature is the only diaper company that has the Eco-Swan label. This label is licensed when a company that has applied for it is granted it by the Nordic Ecolabelling Board (established in 1989 by the Nordic Council of Ministers) and the company obtains this license for sale of the items in Nordic countries, whether it is a Nordic company or not if it meets the established criteria.

Unfortunately, you won't be able to avoid leaving a footprint with diapers - merely limit it. The only way to eliminate the diaper footprint is to toilet train. This unfortunately doesn't eliminate the fecal waste effect as our septic systems still have environmental consequences, albeit far less than all forms of diapering. In the meantime, whether you opt for cotton, compostable or conventional - don't forget to plonk as much as you can. This at least puts all the plonked poop into the septic system rather than our landfills.


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