Pampers claims that disposable diapers are better for babies and just as good for the environment as cloth/reusable diapers. So I did a little research and thinking.
I have used all kinds of diapers from bumGenius deluxe all-in-one cloth diapers to Pampers with the superabsorbant gels to Seventh Generation non-bleached disposables to Tushies natural ones. I have to say that all in all the disposables are good at keeping the wet stuff in, which means if you so choose you can keep the diaper on baby for several hours without worrying too much about leaks. But I have found that disposable diapers lead to super blow outs so much more than cloth diapers, provided the cloth diapers fit correctly. I have also had problems with diaper rashes on my son and found frequently changing the cloth diapers helped clear it up faster than when using disposables (maybe an airflow thing). Sure, doing poopy diaper laundry can be unpleasant, but I have a hard time with the idea of sending thousands of disposables to the trash dump over the course of my child's young life.
Sure, Pampers claim that disposable superabsorbant diapers are better at reducing the likelihood of diaper rash is founded on real science. But, there are all sorts of chemicals in disposable diapers that have been shown to be harmful, like affecting respiration. Dioxins are produced as a result of the making of the paper pulp for the diapers. Dioxins are toxic and found in our water sources, harming people and animals. However, we get most of our exposure to dioxins through our food not through tampons, diapers or other personal care products. Yuck!
Dioxins are a class of persistent polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons that induce a wide spectrum of toxic responses in experimental animals including reproductive, endocrine, developmental, and immunologic toxicities as well as carcinogenicity....The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that > 95% of exposures to dioxins are through low-level contamination of the food supply (8). These exposures are caused by bioaccumulation of dioxins in animals and the subsequent consumption of animal products such as beef, pork, poultry, and fish, as well as dairy products (8). The major sources of dioxins in the food chain are combustion mechanisms such as municipal, hazardous, and medical waste incinerators.http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/members/2002/110p23-28devito/devito-full.html
From available research one can conclude that the environmental impacts of using disposables or reusables are about the same- if you don't count the ability to use cloth diapers for more than one child, sometimes several. Or if we don't count the people who can wash cold, line dry their organic all natural diapers...well then I would argue cloth wins on carbon emissions. But if you look at the synthetic materials used in many pocket diapers or the conventionally raised cotton used in others...well you get environmental impact from those manufacturing and agricultural methods. It's enough to drive you to drink.
But what resonates with me are the resources that go into manufacturing disposables. According to the Real Diaper Association (granted, a biased organization):
Over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby EACH YEAR.
Lehrburger, C., J. Mullen and C.V. Jones. 1991. Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis. Philadelphia, PA: Report to The National Association of Diaper Services (NADS).
Do we really want to use our petroleum resources to make diapers that just end up in landfills and do not biodegrade for 250-500 years?!
But there is a lot that goes into the decision of what kind of diapers to use. Cost and convenience are usually the first two considerations. Some people balk at the initial costs of cloth diapering, but I have to say that I would rather spend $100-500 upfront on whatever kind of cloth diapering system than shell out $50+ a month on disposables for two or more years. Plus, there are lots of ways to cloth diaper on the cheap. You can buy used diapers on Ebay (I have). You can search craigslist or one of the many cloth diapering sites like DiaperSwappers. You can ask among family and friends to see who may have a stash they could share. You can buy prefolds and a few covers for under $100, if you bargain shop. You can even sew your own, if you are so crafty (I wish!).
If you want convenience and are willing to spend a little more you can purchase re-usable diapers like FuzziBunz. These are a pocket diaper, meaning you add absorbent material to the pocket in the diaper and put the diaper on just like a disposable. No covers or pins needed. FuzziBunz use snaps but other pocket diapers use velcro or a combination of snaps and velcro to get a good fit.
My favorite diaper is the BumGenius One Size. It's a pocket diaper that goes from newborn to potty training. Easy to use, durable and adorable. We used these more than any other diapers. They clean up well, dry pretty quickly and fit well under clothes.
So what's my point? Good question, grasshopper. I went into this post ready to lampoon disposable diapers, but then read research and found out that a lot of what I thought wasn't true, or at least not accurate. I also realized that there is a lot we don't know. Manufacturers don't have to tell us what's in their diapers. So who knows what chemicals and toxins we are bringing into our homes and putting on our children or if they really are as safe as they claim. This is a genuine concern. So maybe we need to rally and demand accountability and full disclosure of ingredients for all of the products we bring into our homes. One way to do this might be to support the Safe Chemicals Act , introduced by Senator Lautenberg:
The “Safe Chemicals Act of 2010” requires safety testing of all industrial chemicals, and puts the burden on industry to prove that chemicals are safe in order stay on the market. Under current policy, the EPA can only call for safety testing after evidence surfaces demonstrating a chemical is dangerous. As a result, EPA has been able to require testing for just 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals currently registered in the United States and has been able to ban only five dangerous substances. The new legislation will give EPA more power to regulate the use of dangerous chemicals and require manufacturers to submit information proving the safety of every chemical in production and any new chemical seeking to enter the market.
Maybe we should think a little more about why we purchase and use the things we do. Maybe we have to sacrifice convenience for health. Maybe we have to sacrifice low prices in favor of low costs in other areas, namely the environment and our children's health. Maybe we have trusted the government and industry a little too much with our bodies and planet. Maybe we need to re-think more than just what type of diaper to put on that cute little bottom.