As every proud new mom or dad (or older brother or sister) knows, a new baby means lots of diapers – 15 to 18 every day! The television is full of ads promising longer protection for grandma’s antique sofa, a new form fit without "the bunchies", and even colour coded diaper: pink for girls and blue for boys. Recently, concern has been expressed over the diaper issue and as with any issue close to the heart, especially one involving children, the arguments have become fairly heated. Why all the concern about diapers?
Think about what happens to those pretty designer diapers once they leave the curbsides of suburbia. The average baby uses ten disposable diapers a day for two years. This amounts to a small hill of diapers and a lot of garbage – one metric ton per child. Disposable fees at municipal landfills are currently about $85 a ton – sounds cheap compared to the initial cost of the diapers. Think though about how much room one metric ton of used diapers will occupy. Diapers by volume constitute 2% of all garbage from residential areas. With the populated areas of southern Ontario rapidly running out of room in licensed landfill sites and the growing opposition to siting new landfills due to environmental, aesthetic and NIMBY (not in my backyard) concerns, the problems of disposing of over 100 million diapers per year are obvious. Thus, the call for the return to the traditional cloth diaper or biodegradable diapers.
What about biodegradable diapers? Environmentalists warn that adding the label "biodegradable" merely reinforces the wrong message: "To throw away is ok." Biodegradable plastics cannot be recycled. If degradable plastics are mixed with normal plastics in the recycling process, the resulting product will be jeopardized. However, it is not likely that diapers are destined for the recycling plant. The lifetime of the biodegradable diaper compared to a regular disposal diaper in a landfill is also an unknown, and most certainly depends on a host of environmental factors such as the landfill leachate quality, the amount of water, soil conditions, presence of other chemicals, etc. The decreased lifetime of the plastic may, however, be a moot point. Not much of the disposable diaper, biodegradable or regular, is plastic; only the surface sheets, waistbands and fastening tabs. The rest of the diaper is wood pulp fibres and, in some cases, polymers specifically designed to absorb moisture and keep baby dry.
There are other concerns about disposable diapers; landfills are now receiving material that we have traditionally treated via sewage treatment plants where effluents are monitored. Furthermore, many of our vaccines that are given to babies starting at 2 months are live. Disposable diaper packages contain a request printed on the outside of the package that the inner diapers be rinsed and the fecal material flushed down the toilet before the diapers are put out for garbage collection. How many busy caregivers faithfully flush out each diaper before disposal?
Landfills in the past have been sited with little respect for the geology or groundwater flow in the area. Many older landfills are either situated on some of the best types of geologic areas which are more permeable to water than anticipated. Regulations concerning the siting of new landfills have recently become much more rigorous. Research on landfill leachate quality and movement, and the protection of our vital groundwater resources is currently underway in the Department of Earth Sciences at Waterloo.
With all of these environmental problems associated with disposable diapers, why not return to cloth? – it’s more economical, savings of $2,000 per child over disposable diapers. But doesn’t washing diapers also add to environmental pollution? Think of all the extra soap, bleach and extra electricity needed to wash and diapers. Yes, washing will contribute to pollution, and low phosphorus or "biodegradable" detergents can be used to avoid eutrophication (increasing the plant or algae growth in natural waterways). Don’t forget that manufacturing the disposable diapers also consumes energy and petroleum products.
However, the main issue close to the heart is time. One thing a new parent is always short of is time (synonymous with sleep). How much easier just to flip that used smelly diaper into a green garbage bag and pull another from the package, especially in the middle of the night? Who wants to wake up to a forest of dirty diapers in the morning? And as for travelling, who wants to arrive with an armload of dirty diapers and head straight out to the laundromat instead of the beach or ski slopes? As one mother of quadruplets in Peterborough, Ontario said to a vocal proponent of cloth diapers: "I challenge him to wash the diapers in my household for one day …" However, as we run out of places to put our garbage, as landfill disposal fees skyrocket and as recycling programs become more and more extensive, the diaper dilemma will face increased scrutiny in the near future.