31 July 2009

The Diapering Debacle Part II: Environmental Impact


While cost may have been a cut and dry issue with personal preference being the ruling factor, the story of environmental impact is much more convoluted. There are pros and cons of each method, they key seems to be just where the impact lies. The good news is that no matter which you choose, diapers are getting more ecologically conscience every day. Here is the basic run down on environmental impact of diapers in general.

I would like to note here that data used for all analysis is pretty cruddy. Unbiased research is very hard to find. While I am not sure I would put full faith in a study run by Proctor & Gamble, the pro-cloth research reads a bit too much like tree-hugging propaganda. I will include a list of the links and resources I used so everyone can check out the “source” materials if they so desire.

In a nutshell both types of diapering have major environmental impact. Really the greenest choice would be not to procreate, but that is a huge philosophical discussion for another day.

Disposables:
- use wood-based products that may not come from renewable resources
- they are processed in plants with chemicals that are not environmentally friendly
- they generate a lot of trash (50% of the trash output of the average family with one kid)
- they do not biodegrade quickly, if at all, though that is changing.
- they place a lot of solid waste into landfills and while this has not yet posed a traceable health concern, long-term it may

Cloth
- require higher in home energy and water use
- washing may contribute to water pollution via chemical in detergents and treatments
- diaper services are basically environmental sink holes, though they are becoming rare here in the US
- use cotton that requires more resources to grow, harvest and produce for marketing than the wood products
- the cotton is often bleached or treated to make it more consumer appealing, a process that is not environmentally friendly
- additional water and sewage use from cleaning may create an impact on already failing municipal systems

All of these factors are worth considering, but none lead to a definitive conclusion. A study done in England indicates that the environmental impact of the choices is equal once you calculate the energy usage of washing them. Even an article published by the Sustainability Institute points out that “From the earth's point of view it's not all that important which kind of diapers you use. The important decision was having the baby.”

The Green Guide, written by the editors of The Green Guide Magazine and put out by National Geographic states the same basic premise by saying “In the debate over cloth versus disposable diapers, there is no clear winner.”

The take home message here is that the choice you make depends on the kind of impact you want to have. Mindfully.org provides what I feel are the most useful guidelines:

“In areas where land is plentiful but water is in short supply disposable diapers may be the more environmentally responsible choice. In areas experiencing solid waste problems and decreasing landfills, but have adequate water supplies, cloth diapers or a combination of cloth and disposables may be the most environmentally responsible choice.”

Since we live in coastal areas, as general rule, and local water conservation is a municipal priority, I still feel disposables are the way to go. For us, not necessarily for everyone. Want the best of both worlds? Many are now pointing to the G-Diaper as the new answer to this conundrum. These diapers boast cloth exteriors that can be reused many times and washed with your regular wash. The inserts are biodegradable and therefore can be flushed, thrown in the trash with the knowledge that they will break down or they can even be composted. They are expensive with costs being much greater than cloth or disposables, but if ecological soundness is your number one priority, these really may be the diaper of the future.

All this research has provided many other pro-con arguments, so I am hoping to do a Part III to investigate the other motivations as the grand finale. The choice is still a tough one, but the more information we all get, the better choices we can make.


Resources:

The Diaper Debate: Are Disposables as Green as Cloth?

The Great Disposable Diaper Debate

The Green Guide, The Editors of The Green Guide Magazine, published by National Geographic
The Diaper Decision: Not A Clear Issue


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