Dispensing with the disposables

The protracted pollution potential has some parents considering a return to cloth nappies.

taglit.sendarticle (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
hat is the connection between a Pringle and a baby's bottom? The Pringle's potato chip has a uniform size and shape which makes the required quantity fit snugly in the cylinder packaging. The majority of babies in the Western world are kept clean and dry with a uniform size and shape disposable diaper. It was one man, Victor Mills, who invented the machines that produced the perfect Pringle. This also led to the mass production of Ivory soap for Procter and Gamble and solved the consistency problems of Duncan Hines cake mixes. As a grandfather, he observed that washing diapers was not a favorite pastime for parents. He bought a Betsy-Wetsy doll and used it for experimenting and testing his disposable diaper. Thus Pampers was launched by Procter and Gamble in 1961. In 1966 Caryle Harmon of Johnson & Johnson and Billy Gene Harper of Dow Chemicals added polymer, which improved the absorbency by up to three times its weight in water. Although the disposable diaper grew in popularity only in the 1970s, it was not an entirely new concept. In Sweden, diaper liners were available from the beginning of the 1940s, and the first complete disposable diaper made of unbleached creped cellulose tissue was manufactured in 1942 by Paulistrom of Sweden. An American housewife, Marion Donovan, invented in 1947 a waterproof covering for cloth diapers made of shower curtain plastic and closed with plastic snaps to replace the safety pins. In the same decade, a British mother Valerie Hunter Gordon developed a two-piece completely disposable diaper. So it took some innovative mothers to recognize the need in an increasingly mobile society. However, up to the early 1970s disposable diapers were used only for trips and holidays. Their capacity was small and their closing tapes were clumsy. Leaving a baby for too long in a disposable resulted in a sore red bottom and unfortunate leaking. It was the development of the disposable sanitary napkin that led the path to a more compact absorbent diaper. After Harper and Harmon filed their patent for superabsorbent polymer, many companies competed in the 1970s and 1980s to produce the most convenient and baby-friendly disposable diaper. Today, the stores are stocked with a vast variety of sizes and options. Throughout human history, a solution has been sought to stop one's infant from soiling the family nest. However much we love our babies - and some do admit that the smell of a freshly soiled diaper from a breastfed baby is not offensive - the fact is that their waste matter loses its appeal when left for some period of time or is spilt on carpets or furniture. The ancient Egyptians, Aztecs and Romans documented the use of leaf wraps and animal skins, and the Eskimos placed moss under sealskin around their babies' bottoms. In warmer climates - this can be seen even today in Africa and India - babies were left naked, and their caregivers tried to anticipate their activities and hold them over a suitable hole in the mud. In colder Europe, the Industrial Revolution from the mid-1800s and the urbanization of much of the population resulted in the production of the traditional cloth diaper held together with safety pins. The first mass production of cloth diapers in the United States was initiated by Maria Allen in 1887. With this grew the awareness of bacteria and fungi, the prevention of diaper rash and the need to keep these cloth diapers clean. During the first half of the 20th century, parents were enslaved by the daily ritual of boiling vast numbers of diapers in a large vat on the stove. In cold seasons and climates, one could tell there was a baby in the house by the constant smell of wet laundry hanging on lines from the kitchen ceiling. As more women joined the workforce during World War II, diaper services were created. Until the late 1980s in Israel, diapers were collected and delivered to the door by these commercial laundries. It is perhaps a paradox that just as the washing machine was becoming a standard household appliance, the disposable diaper made its appearance. In the 1990s the finer details were solved, which led to a more streamlined design: A cloth-like back sheet replaced the less comfortable plastic, velcro tapes and leg cuffs prevented leaking, and techniques were developed to make the diaper more absorbent while providing better protection for the infant. Throughout this period, there have also been warning bells about disposable diapers. At first the inferior design and harsh materials caused chafing and soreness, but laundering cloth diapers is also not without its hazards because some babies are allergic to soaps and other cleaning materials. One large concern about disposables has been the use of the dyes, the polyacrylate (the absorbent gel) and dioxins. "Dioxins" has now become the buzzword, and we are warned not to freeze or microwave food in plastic containers that are not specifically for that purpose. But in 1990, British pediatrician Penny Stanway (best known for her book Breast Is Best) published Green Babies, a book that gave guidelines to parents on creating a healthy environment in terms of the home, diet and use of consumer products. In her book, Stanway discusses the problem of dioxins in disposable diapers and the rashes and allergies caused by the bleaches and perfumes used in their manufacture. She also discusses the release of dioxins both in the effluent from factories manufacturing the diapers and the disposal of the diapers after use as a serious hazard to our rivers and oceans. Apart from the dioxins, bacteria from untreated human waste released into the soil produce a serious health hazard. Polio is a disease that should have disappeared by now, but when a baby is given the vaccine his stools will, for the next few days, actually contain the virus, which can be transmitted if the diaper is not handled or disposed of correctly. Sodium polyacrylate has been linked to toxic shock syndrome - as has happened in the past with the use of tampons. The American Environment Protection Agency declares that dyes and dioxins can damage the central nervous system, kidneys and liver. The FDA received reports that the fragrances in disposables caused headaches and rashes. Other problems cited by the Consumer Protection Agency in the US include chemical burns, choking when babies have pulled apart the disposables and chewed the plastic, and staining of the skin by ink used marking the diaper. The American Journal of Pediatrics reports that 54% of one-month-old babies using disposables had rashes. In the February 2000 issue of Mothering magazine, Drs. Rosalind and Julius Anderson link the use of disposable diapers with asthma. In their study, laboratory mice were exposed to the perfumes and chemical emissions from various manufactures of disposables and were shown to suffer increased eye, nose and throat irritation and bronchial constriction similar to an asthma attack. "We are also finding these chemical off-gases not only in diapers but in other baby products, such as mattresses and mattress covers. Cotton diapers did not produce these results in any of the studies," they conclude. So the ecological debate continues. While those against the disposables cite the damage to the environment and use of non-renewable resources in their manufacture and packaging, others claim that the use of cloth diapers is not without ecological damage. Growing sufficient cotton to manufacture diapers for the world's babies uses vast quantities of water, and the harvesting and processing of the cotton in itself causes pollution. But the fact is that if parents buy a total of 24 cloth diapers, these can be reused constantly not only until the baby is able to use a potty or toilet seat, but they can be passed on to other babies in the family. So that package of 24 nappies has to be compared with the purchase of approximately 250-300 disposables a month for an average of two years, repeated for each baby in the family. If every baby in the world used a disposable diaper, the daily consumption would be 1,375 million, or 18,238 every second according to statistician Carlos Richer. In terms of how many forests are destroyed to produce the raw materials and how much pollution and contamination is caused by their disposal, it would seem that the evolution of disposable diapers is one of the least environmentally friendly developments of the modern age. And yet when presented with this dilemma, few parents would willingly go back to the days of soaking cloth diapers in buckets of sterilizing solution or coming back from a day out or a long journey with bags of soiled diapers. At one end of the consumer scale, in the US, 95.6% of babies use disposables, while only 4.4% have parents who are sufficiently concerned about the environment to keep the bottoms clean and dry with cloth. This accounts for 467 disposables every second and, at an average of 45g per diaper, produces 1,816 tons of solid refuse a day. These figures are according to Cricher's estimate of six to seven diapers a day for a newborn and four to five for an older infant. In this writer's experience, a newborn baby breastfeeds eight to 10 times a day. Breast milk is metabolized very quickly, so even if the diaper was not changed when the baby woke up, he will surely need a change by the time he finishes feeding. A baby over three months will still feed at least five to six times a day so that total number of diapers daily in each case exceeds Cricher's estimate. Stanway claims that 18 billion disposable diapers (as sold annually in the US at the time she wrote her book) use 67,500 tons of plastic. The paper is produced from wood pulp and the plastic from petrol, both non-renewable resources. One fully grown tree makes 500 diapers, so the average baby uses up five trees worth of diapers until age two. In the UK at that time, 3.5 billion disposable diapers were used each year, forming 4% of household waste. At the other end of the consumer scale, in Third World countries only 2% of babies use disposables; but, as has happened with artificial baby milks, it is only a matter of time until one of the large manufacturers finds a way to penetrate this vast market. According to the New Parents Guide, 80,000 pounds of plastic and more than 200,000 trees are used annually to provide all of America's babies with disposable diapers. The untreated waste placed in landfills contaminates groundwater and, ultimately, the food chain. This argument is offset by the energy, water and detergents used for laundering cloth diapers, but the amount of water need to wash eight to 10 diapers a day does not exceed the amount used to flush the toilet four or five times a day. Wastewater from the toilet after rinsing off the cloth diaper and from laundering in a washing machine is treated with sewage, so it is less of a health hazard than soiled diapers disposed in a landfill. This source encourages the use of diaper laundry services because the wholesale washing of large quantities in industrial machines ultimately uses less energy and water than individual domestic machines. Awareness of the environmental hazards is not new, yet it has taken nearly half a century for manufacturers to consider how to improve their products for the benefits of the baby and society. Looking at the websites of leading diaper manufacturers, including the most popular brands in Israel, the focus is on price-slashing or absorbency. There are no references to the environment or efforts to research a product that will be less of a health hazard. Concluding all the environment and health hazards of the disposable diaper, investment consultant Carlos Richer considers it a challenge of the 21st century to solve these problems and produce a diaper that is thinner, safer in its use and disposal, and more comfortable for the baby. Worldwide, progress is being made, but there is no evidence of these developments affecting the Israeli market. A Mexican company Absormex spent the early years of this century marketing the first degradable disposable diaper. The breaking down process is faster when the diapers are exposed to light, but even without light it results in a dramatic change in the molecular weight to the point where the product becomes bioactive. These diapers were launched into the American market in 2001 but discontinued because of lawsuits from competitors and claims that proved too expensive to defend. Occasionally a gimmicky form of waste disposal comes onto the market. My daughter was given a gift of a diaper bin that compressed the used product into tiny pellets in a plastic casing. When she needed refills, they were not available. A manufacturing process that saves on energy, petrol and trees has still not emerged. Nor have all the problems of allergies, skin rashes and other health hazards been addressed. Repopularizing the cloth diaper needs more than the revival of the diaper laundry service. It needs a massive education campaign in daycare centers and among parents who prefer to leave their dirty diapers behind them. It would also be worthwhile to analyze the cost and consider what could be done with the money saved. Disposable diapers cost between one and one and a half shekel apiece. Multiply this by 250-300 a month for two years, and this totals nearly NIS 8,000 for one baby. What a good start that would be for the college fund! And the savings in terms of the environment are beyond estimate. The writer is a childbirth educator and lactation counselor and author of Life after Birth - Everywoman's Experiences of the First Year of Motherhood.