I became a new mom at a time when cloth diapers were the norm and witnessed the international environmental concerns as disposable diapers grew in popularity. Disposables, or throwaways as they’re more accurately called, are so ubiquitous today that the environmental impact of their use is seldom talked about or considered.
Here is a brief overview of the the growth of disposables and the politics of diapers in general. References for some of my statements are hard to find as they are so old, but they are referenced in past issues of Mothering magazine. (see below)
DAWN OF DISPOSABLES
Proctor and Gamble (P&G) introduced Pampers in 1961 and by the 1970s serious environmental concerns began to surface about disposables. Pennsylvania Boy Scouts conducting a highway clean-up campaign in 1971 reported that throwaway diapers were the single largest source of litter.
In 1975, Consumer Reports compared different brands of disposable diapers and noted that trees are cut down in their manufacture; environmentalists today suspect that some disposables come from old growth Canadian forests.
Consumer Reports also published the information that intestinal and live vaccine viruses had been found in feces in disposable diapers removed from “sanitary” landfills, that flushing diapers could damage septic tanks, plumbing lines and sewage-treatment plants, and that only commercial incinerators can safely burn disposables.
Concern about human feces in landfills became of such importance in the 1970s that the World Health Organization called for an end to the inclusion of urine and fecal matter in solid waste.
Parents were also concerned. They noticed more rash with disposable diapers. The September 1979 edition of Pediatrics called for limiting the use of disposables because a study found that disposables caused more frequent and more severe diaper rash. That year, Oregon proposed a bill to ban the sale of disposables.
SUPER-ABSORBENT POLYMER (SAP)
Nevertheless, P&G reported that over 40 percent of newborns in US hospitals were diapered in Ultra Pampers in 1986. Introduced in 1985, Ultra Pampers was the first US diaper to contain sodium polyacrylate, a super-absorbent polymer (SAP) that can absorb up to 100 times its weight in liquid.
SAP, used in the late 1960s by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), was first introduced in diapers in Japan in 1982. The original super-absorbent diapers contained five to six grams of SAP per diaper. The new, thinner diapers of today have less wood pulp and more SAP – 10 to 15 grams per disposable diaper. Super-absorbent diapers currently on sale at natural grocery stores contain SAP.
SAP can cause severe skin infections or worse. In the 1980s, SAP was removed from super absorbent tampons because the material increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome.
In 1988 P&G commissioned a three-year study at the University of Michigan to determine the effects of sodium polyacrylate in disposable diapers in landfills. The study showed that SAP is environmentally safe
However, the OSHA Material Safety Data Sheet on Superabsorbent polymer states, “Preexisting skin or breathing disorders may become aggravated through prolonged exposure.” A study in the October 1999 issue of Archives of Environmental Health found that laboratory mice exposed to various brands of throwaway diapers suffered eye, nose, and throat irritation, including bronchoconstriction similar to an asthma attack. The lead author of the study advised asthmatic mothers to avoid exposure to the chemicals found in most throwaway diapers.
WASTE OF DISPOSABLES
In 1989, the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS), commissioned Carl Lehrburger of Energy Answers Corporation to study throwaway diapers. Lehrburger concluded that each family that chooses cloth diapers prevents one ton of waste from entering the solid waste stream each year.
Diaper services went almost extinct in the late 1970s because of the introduction of throwaway diapers, but grew by more than 70 percent in the 1980s. Hundreds of news stories were published on the environmental impact of throwaway diapers and parents increasingly demanded reusable cotton diapers.
POLITICS OF DIAPERS
Competing interests, however, conspired to undermine this trend. In June of 1989, Gerber, Childrenswear and Dundee Mills, major manufacturers of cotton diapers, lobbied the US Congress for quotas on imported Chinese cloth diapers, the ones used by US diaper services and independent cloth diaper retailers. This quota resulted in a cloth-diaper shortage, created waiting lists at diaper services and put many small diaper companies out of business.
Despite the quota, legislation against disposables mushroomed. In July 1989, Connecticut began to phase out the use of disposable products, including those in patient care. Oregon created a 50% recycling credit for diaper services. New Jersey legislated a tax on the manufacture of “disposable, one-way,’ non-reusable or non-returnable products.” Connecticut and New York considered requiring labels on all diaper products stating the environmental hazards associated with their disposal. Nebraska banned the sale of all non-biodegradable diapers effective 1993.
1990 was the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. Legislation was introduced in 24 states and dozens of smaller jurisdictions to reduce the use of disposable diapers.
THE LITTLE STUDY
That same year, P&G commissioned the Arthur D. Little study. Little concluded that laundering a cloth diaper over the course of its lifetime consumes up to six times as much the water as that used to manufacture a single-use diaper. In addition, the study concluded that laundering cloth diapers produced nearly ten times the water pollution created in manufacturing throwaways.
Little’s study was widely criticized for not using independent data and for relying on information gathered by P&G and the single-use diaper industry. The study was further compromised because of a math error and discredited for failing to account for the water used in flushing the fecal matter from single-use diapers. Nonetheless it marked a turning point. It was the beginning of public confusion about the environmental impact of throwaway diapers.
LOSS OF CLOTH
Under the auspices of the American Paper Institute, P&G used the Little data in a 1990 letter to US legislators, but failed to disclose that the study was funded by P&G. The company also sent 14 million pamphlets – along with discount coupons for Luvs and Pampers — to US households claiming that their diapers could be effectively composted in municipal solid-waste plants, even though within a year they would abandon their attempts to do so as economically unfeasible.
Ads appeared in more than a dozen major magazines featuring photographs of seedlings growing in pots filled with dark, porous-looking earth. The ads claimed that 80% of each plastic and paper diaper was “compostable” and could be converted into a “rich, high-quality soil enhancer that’s good for planting baby flowers, trees and just about anything that grows.” By some estimates, P&G spent $250 million in 18 months on advertising. Their PR blitz was a success. It eventually led to the demise of both the cloth diaper and the diaper service industries in the US.
THE LEHRBURGER STUDY
In 1991, Lehrburger undertook a cradle to grave, life-cycle analysis of diapers, his second study for NADS. It was the most detailed study to date of the environmental impact of single-use diapers and the first one not funded by industry.
Lehrburger found that compared to reusable diapers, throwaway diapers use seven times more solid waste when discarded and three times more waste in the manufacturing process. In addition, effluents from the plastic, pulp and paper industries are far more hazardous than those from the cotton growing and manufacturing process.
Single-use diapers consume less water than reusables laundered at home, but more than those sent to a commercial diaper service. Washing diapers at home, however, uses 50 to 70 gallons of water about every three days – about the same as flushing the toilet five times a day. These 1991 figures for gallons of water could probably be improved upon using today’s energy efficient washing machines.
According to the American Petroleum Institute, 3.5 billion gallons of oil were used to produce the 18 million throwaways that Lehrburger studied in 1991. Today the use of throwaway diapers has increased to 98 percent of households, roughly twice as many as in 1991. Approximately 7 billion gallons of oil each year are required to feed our disposable diaper habit, almost four times as much oil as is estimated to be in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
In 1991, the Landbank Consultancy, an independent British environmental agency, reviewed and evaluated the available research on the environmental impact of throwaway diapers. Their conclusion: compared to cloth diapers, throwaway diapers use 20 times more raw materials, three times more energy, twice as much water, and generate 60 times more waste.
Using the Landbank Report, the Women’s International Network challenged P&G’s environmental equivalency claims before the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority, which ruled that P&G’s claims were misleading. Under pressure from the press, P&G withdrew its claims.
The Women’s Environmental Network joined with other groups in 1994 to demand a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of the single-use diaper industry, charging the industry with deceptive advertising of environmental and health outcomes. P&G paid out of court settlements to the New York City Consumer Protection Board and to the Attorneys General of at least ten states for misleading advertising claims related to the recycling and composting of Pampers and Luvs. Environmental groups nationwide presented Earth Day awards to cloth diapers, but they amounted to a eulogy. Later, the Sierra Club would list the loss of cloth diapers as one of the top environmental tragedies of the 20th century.
By 1998, fewer than one in ten US and Canadian households were using cloth diapers. Between 1996 and 1997, the production of cloth diapers dropped 35%. The membership of NADS dropped 37%. Disposable diapers rose as a percentage of solid waste in landfills. Today 98% of all diaper using households use throwaway diapers, a $19 billion global industry.
The Real Diaper Industry Association, a group that represents makers of cloth diapers found a 30 percent increase in cloth diaper sales between 2000 and 2007.
While today there is a plethora of choices; cloth diapering is really very simple and it’s much less expensive and saves about $1000 a year over disposables. To begin with cloth, one needs a few dozen diapers, some pins or fasteners, a few diaper covers, and a container to store the diapers in until you wash them.
If you haven’t done so already, give cloth a try. Ask an experienced and enthusiastic cloth diaper user to show you how it’s done. Cloth diapers are an idea whose time has come again.
Look for diaper companies that share your values, that practice The Triple Bottom Line.
Check out The Real Diaper Association.
Participate in the Great Cloth Diaper Change.
For more information, see these past issues of Mothering: 28, 43, 53, 55, 60, 73, 80,103, 104,105.
Peggy O’Mara is the editor and publisher of peggyomara.com. She founded Mothering.com in 1995 and was its editor-in chief until 2012. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four and grandmother of two.