Disposable diaper war hits bottom Environmentalists giving up fight to ban disposables

October 23, 1992|By New York Times News Service

The war over how to cover American baby bottoms has ended in a rout.

Exhausted by their failure to convince parents that the nation's landfills have turned into reeking mountains of disposable diapers, many of the most zealous environmentalists have simply stopped trying.

The signs of surrender are everywhere. Three years ago, 22 states considered taxing or banning disposables. None have succeeded.

In 1990, New York nearly passed a law requiring hospitals to distribute pamphlets about cotton diapers to all new parents. This year a similar effort died in a day.

Even the Environmental Protection Agency seems to have run up the [reusable] white flag. In its major new guide to reducing waste, the word diaper never even appears.

"You know Freud was right about us," said Allen Hershkowitz, a solid waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and a man who has long been plagued by his own ambivalence over the diaper debate. "Civilization has its costs."

Clearly one of those costs is disposable diapers. There has never been a more potent symbol of the national conflict between convenience and conservation.

More than 17 billion disposable diapers were sold in the United States last year, and every child who uses them goes through about 4,500 during his or her infancy. Cotton diapers, by comparison, which have swaddled babies at least since Alexander ruled Macedonia, can be used hundreds of times -- then recycled.

For years environmentalists fumed about the waste caused by disposables -- arguing that each diaper tossed onto the rubbish heap furnished fresh evidence that Americans would rather plunder nature than spend the effort necessary to preserve it.

"Let's deal with the big-ticket items before we ask millions of mothers to torture themselves," said William Rathje, an archaeologist and director of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona. "There are so many ways we are wasteful in this country that are not at the absolute core of modern American behavior. Let's start there. After all, convenience is something we should consider."

At first, the debate seemed one of stark contrasts: disposable diapers waste trees, often include plastics that can't be broken down, and account for a numbing amount of unnecessary garbage each year. Cloth diapers, on the other hand, which now now account for less than 15 percent of the U.S. market, seemed environmentally benign.

But closer scrutiny suggests the facts are less one-sided.

Many of the trees used for disposables are planted just for that purpose. Excavations of representative landfills have revealed that discarded diapers take up from 0.5 to 1.8 percent of landfill space.

Reusable diapers have their problems, too. They can require large amounts of water and detergent to clean. Diaper service delivery trucks burn fuel and cause pollution.

In some Western states, like California and Washington, where droughts have presented major problems in recent years and landfill space is relatively easy to find, disposable diapers not only seem to many people more convenient but better for the environment as well.

"There are environmental consequences, health considerations, and issues of life style that all matter. And the right answer is not always the same for everyone. But it certainly is not something one should resolve based on ideology alone," said a senior EPA official who insisted on anonymity due to the "sensitive nature" of the debate.

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