The Diaper Debate: Are Disposables as Green as Cloth?

Shoppers may face the "paper or plastic" dilemma in checkout lines, but for most parents, choosing between diapering their babies in disposables or cloth diapers has become less of a dilemma and more of a foregone conclusion.

"Disposable diapers are so widely used the phrase has practically become redundant," said Mark Stief, owner of the Baby Diaper Service in Seattle.

A new study released in England by a quasi-government environmental organization may dampen the debate even further. After a three-year, 200,000-pound (about $360,000) study, the London-based Environmental Agency concluded that disposable diapers have the same environmental impact as reusable diapers when the effect of laundering cloth diapers is taken into account.

"Although there is no substantial difference between the environmental impacts of the three systems studied, it does show where each system can be improved," said Tricia Henton, director of environmental protection at the Environment Agency.

Reusable diaper advocates in this country, however, claim the study is seriously flawed and stands to only confuse parents about the consequences of how they diaper their children.

"If you're trying to reduce your environmental impact, you can do that significantly by using cloth diapers," said Lori Taylor, a Buffalo, N.Y., mother and co-founder of the non-profit Real Diaper Association. "It's all in the way you wash them, how many you have and the kind of reusable diaper you use."

From Babies' Bottoms to Landfills

Although there are no recent estimates on the number of U.S. parents who choose disposable or cloth diapers, studies from the 1990s found that about 95 percent of American parents choose disposable diapers over reusable ones. Some, including Stief, believe the number of disposable diaper-using parents has increased even more as the demand for diaper services across the country has declined, along with the corresponding number of available diaper services.

All those dirty diapers amount to a growing mound of waste. The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated about 18 billion diapers are thrown into landfills every year. And a 1998 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that diapers made up 3.4 million tons of waste, or 2.1 percent of U.S. garbage in landfills that year.

Even "green" disposable diaper brands, such as Seventh Generation and Nature Boy and Girl, which contain more biodegradable materials, can sit for years in landfills. Research by Bill Rathje, a trash expert and professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, has shown that even a head of lettuce, let alone a plastic diaper, can persist for decades in a landfill where there is often a lack of exposure to air and sun that would otherwise break materials down.

As the British study points out, however, no dirty diaper (or "nappy," as they're known in the U.K.) is impact-free. The water and energy required to wash and dry cloth diapers also take their toll, particularly as energy resources become strained.

"The most significant environmental impacts for all three nappy systems were on resource depletion, acidification and global warming," the authors concluded. "For one child, over two-and-a-half years, these impacts are roughly comparable with driving a car between 1,300 and 2,200 miles."

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