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 The ecological debate: cloth vs.  disposable


During the 1970s and 80s, throwaway diaper usage changed from an occasional-use product to an almost exclusive way of diapering babies.  Perhaps as the disposable product became more available, the convienence of throwing it away after use was "too good to be true" for many busy parents.  So in no time, disposables were found in almost every baby's household.

Now several generations of babies have been completely diapered in disposables.  Since this is the standard practice in our society, few people even consider alternatives to disposable diapering.  But as enviornmental issues became important to the mainstream public, and the practice of recycling became more common, people began to rethink the use of throw away products like diapers.

Cloth diapering proponents bring up the fact that tons of used disposables have piled up in our landfills.  In fact, throwaway diapers make up the third most common item in our landfill spaces, behind paper products and food containers. Since the average disposable takes about 500 years to break down in a landfill, the proportion of diapers there is ever-increasing.

In addition to the sheer numbers of  diapers in landfills, there is the concern of what they contain.  The discarded human waste  contains bacteria and viruses that cause intestinal illnesses, and also other illnesses that are excreted through the digestive tract, like polio and hepatitis.  Even though polio  isn't common in the US and Canada,  the polio virus is shed from the intestines of every baby who has received the oral polio vaccine. I read somewhere, (and I will locate the source and list it here in the future), that it is illegal to deposit untreated human waste in landfills, because of the possiblity that landfill contents could seep into the ground water supply below.  It seems though, that this law isn't enforcable at this time.

So in the 1980s, the ecological debate began.  As the pro-cotton crowd pointed to the extreme numbers trees and plastics being used to make disposables, disposable diaper companies brought up the pesticide use in growing cotton. (although unbleached, organic cotton diapers are now available.)  When the disposable companies mentioned that pollution is created in harvesting and transporting cotton to be made into diapers, the pro-cotton crowd pointed out that pollution is created in the manufacturing of disposables and their transport to the stores.  And, when the disposable companies stated that human waste of babies was dumped into the local water supply through laundering, cotton proponents replied that laundered baby human waste goes where adult human waste goes: into the sewage system (which currently is our best choice of breaking down municipal waste and reusing our water resource)  And what about the water used to launder cotton diapers?  The amount of water to wash diapers is about the same as it is for a potty trained child or adult flushing the toilet.

It is true that diapering practices in general do leave their mark on the earth, just as simply being and living on this planet uses it's resources.  We can help slow down the use of our resources, and even reuse them, if we tread as lightly as we can.  It seems sensible to say that the reusing and recycling of products and resources of cloth diapering best preserves our enviornment.

bibliography and interesting reading

The Joy of Cloth Diapers  Mothering, number 88, May/June, 1988

Diaper Wars  Mothering,  number 60, Summer, 1991

The Flagstaff Green Pages  2nd edition, November, 1993, published by the electronic graphics group, Flagstaff, Az.

(more to come)

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