Down and dirty in the diaper war zone, parents debate cloth vs. single-use


Every year in the United States, about 4 million babies are born -- and each little bottom will be changed about 7,000 times before these babies graduate to training pants.

You don't have to be a math whiz to realize this is a mountain of diapers -- about 17 billion each year. Of these, about 85 percent are thrown away because they are single-use diapers. (Disposable is a misnomer.)

The diaper war is fueled by environmental passion that pits the cloth diaper users against single-use diaper users, some of whom, if questioned, will throw doubt on their choice by confessing feelings of guilt. A war that stirs as many emotions as it does facts, the diaper controversy continues to air certain issues again and again.

Preventing diaper rash

Nearly all babies have a few go-arounds with red, sometimes weepy, sores that leave them fussy and parents often feeling helpless. Until recently, research showed that cloth diapers, particularly those that are diaper-service washed, are superior to single-use diapers in preventing diaper rash.

Single-use diapers with absorbent gelling materials did as well in some studies as cloth diapers because the gel absorbs urine and keeps babies drier. A damper on these results is the fact that super-absorbent diapers are often left on too long, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), thus increasing the risk of diaper rash.

Based on sales figures, many parents say super-absorbent diapers win on convenience hands down. But the seemingly magical capacity of these chemicals -- literally absorbing up to 100 times their weight in urine -- raises the question of their safety. The primary ingredient is polyacrylate. This chemical was also reportedly used in the super-absorbent Rely tampon that was removed from the marketplace in the early 1980s because (( of its triggering role in toxic shock syndrome, a flu-like illness.

Single-use diapers, claims the AAP, have other potential problems as well. They are flammable, and plastic cover particles have occasionally been swallowed by babies.

Even though some menstrual pad products have these absorbent gel materials, women use them on average for only a few days a month. What's fine for an adult may not be fine for infant reproductive organs that will have 24-hour daily exposure for three years.

Parents whose babies develop a rash from super-absorbent diapers have discovered an obvious short-term side effect. No one knows what effects there are, if any, from long-term use of these diapers because the super-absorbent gels have only been used in diapers since the mid-1980s and long-term research has yet to be done.

Alternatives to landfills

Recycling, composting and biodegrading have all been suggested as alternatives to landfills for single-use diapers, but there are problems with each one in this country. So-called biodegradable diapers decompose in laboratories, but not in landfills because of the lack of sunlight and air.

Although there have been diaper industry promises of recycling, the super-absorbent gel used in most single-use diapers makes recycling impossible because of difficulties in separating this chemical from the fiber pulp. Even if it were possible to separate these ingredients, the cost of collecting and processing single-use diapers for recycling would likely double the cost of these diapers.

If you have a child who wears a diaper today, the promise of recycling or composting is only that. Neither will be a reality any time soon. The plastic part of a diaper won't decompose. More important, few solid-waste composting facilities exist in the United States.

How much are diapers part of our overflowing landfills? How safe is it to have them there? And when the price of each is tallied, which type of diaper is friendlier to the environment?

According to the latest report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), diapers make up 1.6 percent of our nation's landfills (down from 2 percent two years earlier). But that small percent translates into about 2.6 million tons of single-use diapers thrown into landfills each year. (Each of us generates 4.3 pounds of landfill trash every day, up from 4.0 two years earlier.)

The safety of used diapers in landfills is questioned because the waste left in single-use diapers (in one study, only 5 percent were shaken out before being discarded) can carry more than 100 types of viruses into ground water. This virus list includes live polio and hepatitis from vaccine residues.

No such bacteria, which could potentially create a public health risk, has been found to contaminate ground water. However, no one knows for sure such contamination doesn't exist because conclusive research hasn't been performed.

If the question were only that of landfill superiority, cloth diapers have the obvious edge, since they won't usually show up there until they're worn rags. However, many believe that overall environmental superiority can be determined only through a cradle-to-grave life-cycle assessment. That means tracking environmental costs all the way back to the trees and petroleum for single-use diapers and to cotton seeds and fertilizer for cloth diapers.

The EPA is still devising life-cycle assessment guidelines, so it is not in a position to support existing assessments.

In 1992 in England, however, Procter & Gamble (P&G;), one of the leading manufacturers of single-use diapers, was forced by the Advertising Standards Authority to stop claiming that there is little environmental difference between single-use and cloth diapers, as a result of a London study that showed that cloth diapers are superior.

But P&G;'s claims of environmental equality are still used in the United States.

A cost comparison

The cheapest diapers are the ones you wash at home. A cost-comparison of cloth diaper services and single-use diapers is not as clear. In many parts of the country, diaper services are always the better bargain, while in others, judicious buying of single-use diapers on sale makes the cost comparable.

However, costs for single-use diaper users will likely increase as curb trash pickup rates go up either through monthly bills or higher municipal fees. This pay-as-you-throw pricing system has been endorsed by President Clinton.

When you're deciding the environmental trade-offs, perhaps you'll say that diaper choice is a matter of preference only.

Or perhaps you'll agree with Vice President Al Gore, who wrote in his book, "Earth in the Balance": "We can't simply create larger and larger quantities of waste and dump it into the environment and pretend it doesn't matter."

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