Both disposable and cloth diapers have problems, so take your pick


February 27, 1991

If you are past your early years of parenthood, or don't plan on undergoing any parenthood at all, don't skip this column and move on to Dear Abby. Like it or not, diapering decisions may soon involve you, too.

Diapers made their way out of the nursery and onto the ballot in Nebraska two years ago. Citizens there voted to ban the sale of all non-biodegradable diapers by 1993.

At issue is the so-called disposable diaper -- a concoction of plastic and paper padding that can absorb up to 80 times its weight in, well, let's just call it moisture. These diapers have names like Huggies, Pampers and Luvs. A baby wets or soils one every few hours, or more often. The diaperer then whips it off the baby, rolls it into a handy, wedge-shaped package and dumps it in the trash.

What is it about this intimate domestic scene that so alarmed Nebraska voters? According to industry figures, about 85 percent of all babies wear disposable diapers. Each baby uses about 4,500 of them during its diaperhood. That adds up to a national total of 16 billion diapers tossed out every year -- enough dirty didies to fill the Kingdome and the Astrodome and the Superdome and several other football stadiums every year.

Where do they all go? Two billion used diapers are incinerated. The others end up in landfills, where they lie, virtually intact, for decades. Their padding cannot degrade readily because it is encased in a plastic shield that has an estimated life span of 450 years, give or take a few.

Meanwhile, the baby's contribution to the diaper slowly leaches into the ground. In addition to the garden-variety bacteria found in all human waste, babies' feces carry some 100 different viruses, including those that cause polio, hepatitis and meningitis. Some experts worry that these viruses may be leaking into the ground water. Recent studies show that this is not a problem. The immediate problem is one of sheer bulk. Landfills are overcrowded all over the country.

Long Island's landfills are filling up so quickly that New York State has ordered them all closed. New Jersey is not far behind -- remember the wandering barge? (By the way, 16 billion diapers would fill that barge every six hours, according to one calculation.) To alleviate the problem, a number of companies market biodegradable diapers. Their outer layer of plastic contains cornstarch, which breaks down relatively quickly. Critics maintain that these diapers just break down into smaller pieces of plastic, which still last 450 years.

Are you sufficiently overwhelmed by this tidal wave of immortal dirty dipes? Well, there's an alternative to the not-so-disposable diaper problem: cloth diapers.

These items should need no introduction. You wore them once yourself, no doubt. They come in two basic varieties, wash-them-yourselfers and from a diaper service that picks up dirty diapers and drops off clean ones once a week.

Each cloth diaper can be used on a baby's bottom about 100 times; after that it can be used as a rag, so cloth diapers don't add to our garbage woes. Sounds perfect, doesn't it? Surprise! Things aren't ever that simple.

Cloth diapers are soaked in bleach, washed in hot water and dried in a dryer. Nifty little diaper service trucks then drive them around the city, burning gasoline and emitting carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and the other ingredients of that urban stew, smog.

I know what you are thinking: "The Household Environmentalist" uses plastic diapers. She is writing this column to justify her loathsome behavior and expiate her Diaper Guilt.

It's not true. My credentials are impeccable: cloth all the way back to Adam and Eve, expensive yuppie Velcro diaper covers, New Age rubber pants, the whole nine yards.

But a recent study commissioned by the American Paper Institute and conducted by Franklin Associates of Prairie Village, Kan., found that disposables require about half as much energy as cloth, use one-quarter as much water, produce half as much air pollution and generate about one-seventh as much water pollution.

Solid waste was the only category in which disposables did not come out ahead: Disposables create four times the garbage cloth diapers do.

So take your pick. If you like cloth diapers, as I do, use them. Prefer paper? Go right ahead. The only environmentally correct thing to do is to potty train your kid as soon as possible. You may have to pay for years of therapy later in life, but console yourself with the fact that therapy contributes to neither the solid waste problem nor global warming. Though I don't think Franklin Associates has finished that study yet.

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