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."
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."
Representatives at Proctor & Gamble, the largest manufacturer of disposable diapers, including Pampers, which was first introduced in 1961, were pleased with the British report's findings.
The results, said P&G spokeswoman Lisa Hulse Jester, "confirm that what we first learned over a decade ago -- that neither disposable nor cloth diapers are better or worse for the environment."
As Jester points out, the British report's findings parallel those from a study released in this country more than a decade ago. That research conducted by Arthur D. Little, Inc. and commissioned by P&G concluded that laundering a cloth diaper over the course of its lifetime consumes up to six times the water used to manufacture a single-use diaper. That water consumption, the authors said, is comparable in impact to the waste produced by disposables.
But critics say both the current study and the one commissioned by the diaper company in 1990 were flawed in ways that favor disposables.
The Women's Environmental Network, a London-based environmental group, points out that the current British report surveyed 2,000 parents who use disposables, but included only 117 parents who use cloth diapers in their research.
Furthermore, the study focused on terry-cloth diapers, which take more water to wash and more energy to dry. Finally, WEN says that the study also assumes parents are not using energy-efficient washer/dryers and that they're washing clothes at a high temperature setting.
"If parents use 24 nappies and follow manufacturers' instructions to wash at 60 degrees C [140 degrees Fahrenheit] using an A-rated washing machine, they will have approximately 24 percent less impact on global warming than the report says," said WEN's Ann Link.
Using a diaper service means consuming even less water and energy. Stief says that his company washes three days worth of a customer's diapers with the amount of water used in a single toilet flush. His Seattle company is also looking into purchasing vehicles that run on eco-friendly fuels to lessen the impact of picking up and dropping off the diapers.
But for most Americans, there is no local diaper service available. In fact, some argue the 1990 Little study encouraged more parents to use disposables and contributed to a dramatic decline in the use of diaper services throughout the 1990s. Today, the National Association of Diaper Services estimates there is at least one diaper service in 42 of the 50 states.
Whatever the best choice may be when it comes to minimizing the environmental impact of diapers, Taylor argues there may also health factors to consider. A 2000 German study concluded that boys who wear disposable diapers maintain a higher scrotal temperature than boys wearing cloth diapers, which may pose fertility issues later in life.
Another study published in 1999 by Anderson Laboratories found that lab mice exposed to various brands of disposable diapers experienced asthma-like symptoms, as well as eye, nose and throat irritation. Exposure to cloth diapers did not cause the symptoms.
Finally, toilet training experts, including Narmin Parpia, a Houston-based mother who offers toilet training advice online, have suggested that disposable diapers may postpone how soon a child learns to abandon the diaper for the toilet.
"Children don't feel the wetness in these disposable diapers, so they don't realize what's happening when they go," Parpia said. "When cloth is used, they feel wet and uncomfortable, which may help them learn sooner."
But when faced with such an onslaught of conflicting advice and study results it can be difficult to know what to believe. Even choosing between the myriad of diaper styles now available can be daunting. In recent years, a number of mostly small, largely online-based companies have started selling a variety reusable diaper brands. Among the available models parents can now choose from are traditional, flat diapers, pre-folded diapers, fitted diapers, diapers with snap covers, Velcro covers and no covers -- even diapers with patterns and colors.
For those who may be confused about the best route -- and diaper -- to choose, one parent, K. Moore of Southhampton, England, offered her advice in a recent letter to the London Times.
"The difficulties of raising a baby are enough without the added pressure of being told you are environmentally unfriendly," she wrote. "We just have to pick and choose when and where to do our bit."