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Which diapers are environmentally correct? A new look at a messy issue


It has been a couple of months now since I wrote a column about diapers. None of my mail has actually blown up, so I think the danger of a letter bomb has passed.

The diaper column that so outraged readers reported the results of two studies conducted for the American Paper Institute and for Procter & Gamble, the corporate disposable-diaper mogul. Both studies attempted to do "life-cycle" analyses. That is, they inventoried the comparative environmental costs -- in natural resources, energy, water, pollution and trash -- of disposable diapers, cloth diapers from a diaper service and home-washed cloth diapers.

Both studies found that disposable diapers, overall, are less costly to the environment than cloth ones.

At first glance, this seems ludicrous, even to devotees of the paper diaper. If it is true, then why shouldn't we be drinking our coffee from disposable cups instead of china mugs?

The difference is that your dirty china coffee cup doesn't need to be picked up by a truck, rinsed twice in warm water, washed in hot water, soap and detergent, rinsed twice more in warm water, bleached in hot water, rinsed again in warm water, rinsed in a chlorine remover, soaked in a pH adjuster, softener and sanitizer, dried in the dryer for 35 minutes or so, then returned to you by truck -- all before you can get a refill.

You can see that cloth diapers are a little more resource-intensive than they seem.

That is where my diaper column left off, suggesting that it might be proper for cloth diaper users to stop glaring at disposable diaper buyers at the supermarket.

Enter the third life-cycle study. This one was paid for by the National Association of Diaper Services. And what a surprise. By this analysis, cloth diapers from a service are a clear winner in the jockeying for the environmental high ground. (You'll be shocked, I know, to hear that all three studies ranked home-washed diapers third.)

What gives? All three studies were conducted by reputable groups. Is the system so corrupt that whatever vested interest pays for the analysis comes out on top?

The problem lies in the nature of these studies. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the analysis of a product's environmental impact -- from cradle to grave -- is a new field of study and a complicated one. Analysts have to make huge numbers of assumptions, basically making educated guesses about this and that aspect of a product's manufacture and use. It is virtually impossible not to weight the study one way or the other.

Which leaves us with the results of a fourth study, an independent one performed by Environmental Choice, a program of the Canadian government. The group's Diapers Task Force awarded their EcoLogo to ... cloth diapers. So now can we consider the subject closed?

I don't think so. Why should we settle for existing levels of pollution, and water and energy costs? The disposable diaper industry has been under enormous public pressure to do something to make their product more "green." And they have done something, by reducing diapers' bulk and packaging and by investing in research on composting and recycling used diapers.

keep the pressure on, and let's turn it on the cloth diaper service industry, too. Write your diaper service. Ask them to look into ways to reduce energy use, water and air pollution.

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