The Environmental Advocate: Diapering with a conscience


By Laura Spehar

Isn’t it unfortunate that we bring our little ones into the world already depleting natural resources? Whether a parent decides to choose cloth cotton diapers or disposable ones; they unavoidably will have an impact on the environment.

Studies have shown that by the time a child is toilet trained, he or she will have had 5,000 to 8,000 diapers changed. If this child is using disposable diapers, it is estimated up to 3.5 million tons of that waste goes into landfills per year. Disposable diapers’ list of health risk factors alone could scare most people away from even ever using them, includes traces of Dioxin, an extremely toxic by-product of the paper-bleaching process, and  Tributylin, a toxic pollutant known to cause hormonal changes in both humans and animals.

So you may be wondering why is it that more parents aren’t using cloth diapers over the disposable ones? Studies show that confronting one’s waste ethic in the United States is very hard to do when value is placed more on convenience by consumers and marketers. There is a definite need in our country’s economic policy to provide incentives that would create jobs to diapers services, daycare facilities, hospitals and other institutions. Public campaigns may be needed to let people know such facts as that the disposable diaper takes roughly 250 to 500 years to decompose in a landfill. In family terms, this means that your child’s disposable diaper in a landfill will not only outlive that child but his or her children and grandchildren.

There is some news coming out that disposable diapers in landfills and other garbage aren’t that bad because landfill waste is starting to get burned to produce electricity in waste-to-energy plants. It is true that eliminating volume and disease potential in landfills is a good thing but at a cost to our air supply through burning and polluting.

Some thinking out there is that cloth diapers may use just as much of our natural resources in the washing and drying process.  My suggestions to these people is to think about washing fuller loads less often and to eliminate rinse cycles in order to conserve the water used. Hanging diapers outside or inside on a clothesline can easily cut down on the electricity used. Another great idea is to recycle the cloth diapers for the next child in the family or even resell the diapers back to a diaper supply service once your child has outgrown them.

In the land of Kimberly Clark here along Puget Sound, we are sure to see up close the impact of what manufacturing disposable diapers has on the environment. Some things that parents can look for in their diaper choices are use of organically grown cotton over ones grown and drenched in toxic chemicals. A sustainable forest label is a good marker for choices. You can look for “bleach free” diapers, which are an alternative to using diapers that have used a dioxin producing chorine.

I do not envy parents who are trying to make these decisions to go green, do the right thing for their children and the world in which they live in a the same time. Good news is that times have changed since Mairon Donovan a Westport housewife invented the “boater”, the first model of a disposable diaper. Today parents can find green diapers that are biodegradable, have no elemental chlorine, perfumes, and can even be composted in your backyard! So I leave your parents and caregivers with an idea… Let’s confront our waste ethic in our country together. Let’s provide societal pressure and education to change modes of diapering. Let’s help ourselves and others to wrap our brains around the idea to eliminate landfills as our primary mode of disposal and replace them with resource conservation, recycling, and composted.  The disposable diaper has had it’s day! The new generation of green –minded parents and caregivers will now be helping the environment and modeling to children good ethical practices for as we all know they are the true caretakers of the future of our planet.

Laura Spehar is a Montessori teacher and environmental educator. She is a WSU Master Gardener, Beach Watcher and Carbon Master, and holds certifications in wildlife habitat and native plant stewardships. Spehar serves on the Snohomish Conservation District’s Advisory Board, Pilchuck Audubon Society Board, Friends of the Edmonds Library Board, and the City of Edmonds Mayor’s Climate Action Committee Board and Tree Board. She was awarded the National Wildlife Federation’s National Conservation Service Award in 2010. Spehar lives in Edmonds with her husband Paul and their two dogs Goldie and Happy on two acres of well-loved and protected wetland/stream side habitat.

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