The Diaper Debate: Are Disposables as Green as Cloth?

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."

Flawed Findings?

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.

Is One Better for Health, Potty Training?

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.

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