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For years the eco-friendly diaper debate has centered around the black and white options of disposables vs. cloth diapers. There's no easy answer in the diaper dilemma but we've gathered some helpful information to help you decide what's right for you.

Find it! Alternative disposable diapers

Enter the gray area: alternative disposable diapers. Some are compostable and some are flushable; some are plastic-free and some contain sustainably managed wood pulp; some are Tributyl-tin (TBT)-free and some are chlorine-free—but they are all greener alternatives to traditional varieties, if you choose the disposable diaper route.

Choosing alternative disposable diapers helps you go green because...

  • You may be able to compost them, keeping diapers out of the landfill.
  • They often contain fewer chemicals than traditional disposables, keeping toxins out of the environment and off of baby's skin.
  • Some alternative disposables are made from sustainable resources.

Anatomy of the diaper 101

What makes one diaper stand apart from the next is what the diaper itself is made from. In traditional disposable diapers, the outer layer is made from polyethylene plastic. To keep 90 percent of the babies born in the US each year in disposable diapers requires 82,000 tons of plastic annually. Plastic is made from oil: one cup of crude oil is required to make the plastic for one disposable diaper.[1] Petroleum is a non-sustainable resource. Its extraction and production has caused major environmental damage to soil, surface and ground waters, and local ecosystems, and contributes to global warming. Plastic-free alternatives, like Nature Boy & Girl and gDiapers, therefore, minimize the environmental impact of disposable diapers because they do not require petroleum.

The inside of a disposable diaper is made from wood pulp and sodium polyacrylate (SAP), which is the chemical used to make disposable diapers “ultra-absorbent”. This portion of the diaper—about 70 percent of the completed product—requires nearly 250,000 trees per year to diaper 90 percent of the babies born in the US each year.[2] It takes 200 to 400 kg of fluff pulp to make disposable diapers for one baby for one year.[1] Alternative disposable diapers, such as Tushies and TenderCare, contain wood pulp from sustainably managed forests, and ensure that your baby's diaper was not responsible for a clear-cut or other eco-unsafe logging practice.

The paper used in disposable diapers often contains toxic chemicals, especially toxic solvents and chlorine compounds used to bleach pulp, which pollute the air and water, and threaten the health of humans and wildlife. Chlorine-free diapers, such as Tushies, TenderCare Plus, and Seventh Generation, therefore help keep toxins out of the environment.

Breaking down biodegradables

But because no item breaks down well in a landfill, there is little to no environmental advantage to using biodegradable diapers over non-biodegradable diapers if they end up in your trash.

A return to the earth: Composting diapers

Some biodegradable diapers, like Nature Boy and Girl, can be composted if there is a municipal composting facility in your area. Municipal composting of solid waste, however, while widely practiced in Europe (over 200 plants are now in operation), has only recently begun to catch on in the US and so is not yet widely available. If you are unsure of whether municipal composting is available in your area, contact your municipality directly or contact the National Recycling Coalition. In industrial composting, the pulp, paper, and human feces biodegrade into compost, while most of the plastic is removed.

Soiled diapers should not be composted in home compost piles or bins, however. Commercial composting facilities operate at high enough temperatures to kill dangerous viruses that may exist in the human waste remnants left in diapers; home composting will not kill these viruses and could spread disease. Wet biodegradable diapers can be composted at home: in fact, urine contains nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, which are good for soil and gardens.

The diaper afterlife: Recycling

Diaper recycling programs are unfortunately nearly nonexistent. While diaper recycling programs do exist in Canada, the Netherlands, and Australia, no such programs exist in the US. A six-month pilot project was conducted in Santa Clarita, California in 2002, but the city shut down the program a year later saying it was not cost effective. In the future, it may be a possibility to recycle diapers by sanitizing the components and recycling the plastic and wood pulp, but for now, it is not an option for many.

Flushing out an alternative

Another type of alternative disposable is the flushable diaper, popularized by the gdiaper. Flushable diapers consist of a conventional cotton reusable outer layer (similar to a diaper cover used with cloth diapers), a nylon liner, and a wood pulp/SAP pad. When the diaper becomes dirty, the flushable insert can be ripped open and its contents flushed down the toilet. gdiapers are approved by NSF International (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation] to move safely through a typical North American toilet and 60 feet of additional pipe. While all that extra flushing may not be eco-neutral, the company claims that it uses 20 percent less water than laundering cloth diapers.

Related health issues

The health risks associated with traditional disposable diapers are many and varied. Between plastic, bleach, absorbency gels, glues, dyes, and fragrances, disposable diapers contain a cocktail of chemicals that can be absorbed through baby's skin or breathed in. Some of these risks are minimized or negated with alternative disposable diapers. For example:

  • Dioxin is a byproduct of the paper-bleaching process used in manufacturing disposable diapers. It has also been shown to cause cancer, birth defects, liver damage, and skin diseases. Chlorine-free disposable diapers, therefore, do not pose the same risk.
  • Fragrance-free alternative diapers will not cause the headaches, dizziness, and rashes that have been reported to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from the fragrances in traditional disposables. Chemical-free diapers help protect baby from childhood respiratory problems, including asthma, that can be triggered by the chemicals in traditional disposable diapers, according to the BornToLove.com September/October 2006 issue of Archives of Environmental Health.
  • Studies by Greenpeace found tributyl tin (TBT) in Proctor and Gamble’s Pampers Baby Dry diapers. This environmental pollutant, believed to be one of the most toxic substances ever made, has a hormone-like effect; even small amounts can impair immune and hormonal systems. Alternative diapers that are TBT-free allow you to protect your baby and the environment from this pollutant.
  • Some chemical risks may still be an issue with many alternative disposables, however. The “super-absorbent” gel in disposable diapers is sodium polyacrylate (SAP)—the same substance that was removed from tampons in the 80s due to its link to toxic shock syndrome—can cause allergic reactions, as well as respiratory and skin irritations, and is a component in all but one brand of alternative disposable diapers.
  • A study by the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that disposable diapers lined with plastic may increase the temperature of the genital area to the degree that they cannot develop normally, contributing to infertility in males.

Controversies

Although biodegradable or recyclable diapers are environmentally preferable to traditional disposables, some say that reusable cloth diapers have a lesser environmental impact, and cost less in the long run.

Glossary

  • dioxin: Extremely persistent chemical compounds that are created inadvertently by human activities like incineration and fuel combustion. Dioxins break down slowly so they persist in the environment for many years. Exposure to dioxins may cause adverse health effects, such as cancer, reproductive, and developmental disorders, and skin disease.
  • genetically modified organism (GMO): A GMO is created by merging the genetic make-up of two organisms, resulting in a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.
  • sodium polyacrylate (SAP): A chemical water absorber, which can absorb 200 to 300 times its weight in water and hold it in a gel.
  • Tributyl-tin (TBT): A fungicide that is moderately toxic to mammals.

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