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Convenience beats conservation in diaper debate


The war over how to cover American baby bottoms has ended in a rout.

Exhausted by their failure to convince parents that the nation's landfills have turned into reeking mountains of disposable diapers, many of the most zealous environmentalists have simply stopped trying.

The signs of surrender are everywhere. Three years ago, 22 states considered taxing or banning disposables. None have succeeded.

In 1990, New York nearly passed a law requiring hospitals to distribute pamphlets about cotton diapers to all new parents. This year a similar effort died in a day.

Even the Environmental Protection Agency seems to have run up the (reusable) white flag. In its major new guide to reducing waste, the word diaper never appears.

"You know Freud was right about us," said Allen Hershkowitz, a solid waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a man who has long been plagued by his own ambivalence over the diaper debate. "Civilization has its costs."

Clearly one of those costs is disposable diapers. There has never been a more potent symbol of the national conflict between convenience and conservation.

More than 17 billion disposable diapers were sold in the United States last year, and every child who uses them goes through about 4,500 during his or her infancy. Cotton diapers, by comparison, which have swaddled babies at least since Alexander ruled Macedonia, can be used hundreds of times -- then recycled.

For years environmentalists fumed about the waste caused by disposables -- arguing that each diaper tossed onto the rubbish heap furnished fresh evidence that Americans would rather plunder nature than spend the effort necessary to preserve it.

"Let's deal with the big-ticket items before we ask millions of mothers to torture themselves," said William Rathje, an archaeologist and director of the University of Arizona's Garbage Project. "There are so many ways we are wasteful in this country that are not at the absolute core of modern American behavior. . . . After all, convenience is something we should consider."

At first, the debate seemed one of stark contrasts: disposable diapers waste trees, often include plastics that can't be broken down and account for a numbing amount of unnecessary garbage each year. Cloth diapers, on the other hand, which now account for less than 15 percent of the U.S. market, seemed environmentally benign.

But closer scrutiny suggests the facts are less one-sided.

Many of the trees used for disposables are planted just for that purpose. Excavations of representative landfills have revealed that discarded diapers take up from 0.5 to 1.8 percent of landfill space. Compared with old newspapers (which can account for as much as 40 percent of space at landfills), construction debris or food waste, diapers are about as big a problem as used sheets and towels.

Reusable diapers have their problems, too. They can require large amounts of water and detergent to clean. Diaper service delivery trucks burn gas-wasting energy and cause pollution.

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