The Real Scoop On Earth-Friendly Diapers

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There are lots of reasons a person's best efforts to minimize consumption, shop responsibly and live in an eco-friendly way are thwarted once a baby comes along.



Chief among them: diapers.



A baby can easily go through 5,000 to 6,000 diapers in the two to three years that they wear them. Bearing that in mind, most parents I know would prefer to avoid clogging landfills with diapers from big companies like Procter & Gamble (PG) and Kimberly-Clark (KMB), with their plastic shells, super-absorbent gels and overwhelmingly fake "baby powder" scents. Indeed, even parents I don't know, like Julia Roberts, reportedly favor eco-friendly diapers: Roberts got Seventh Generation diapers for twins Hazel and Phinnaeus, and Gdiapers for her youngest son Henry, read more on her choices below.




There are several eco brands of disposable and quasi-disposable diapers these days and they work pretty well. You can buy them at Diapers.com, Drugstore.com, Target (TGT) and even Wal-Mart (WMT) for roughly the same price as their mainstream counterparts. But they all have their quirks -- and I'm not sure they benefit the environment nearly as much as they assuage green guilt.



The environmental problems with diapers go from end to end. There's the petroleum, bleach and other chemicals used to manufacture and ship them, and there's the utter lack of biodegradability once you throw them away.



One new brand, Nature Babycare from Sweden, claims to address both issues. Its shell is theoretically compostable because it's made from corn instead of plastic, and the absorbent lining is mostly compostable because it's chlorine free and partly made from wood pulp. Getting petroleum-based plastic and dioxin-generating chlorine out of the manufacturing process is a worthy start.

But one look at these nappies tells you that they are not going to break down in a backyard compost pile anywhere nearly as quickly as your baby will go through them. (And not everything that comes out of a baby's bottom should wind up in a compost pile anyway.) You could find out whether your town has a drop-off location for organic waste (essentially a community compost pile), but most don't.

So you'll probably do with these diapers what I did. You'll wrap them up in a plastic garbage bag that is absolutely not biodegradable and put them out by the curb to be collected by your town garbage collectors, who will ultimately pile them into a landfill. Once there, it seems they wouldn't break down even if they were made of fig leaves, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board.



Seventh Generation and Tender Care, which is made by the Hain-Celestial Group (HAIN), are also chlorine free, but both contain the same superabsorbent polymers that the big brands do. Surprisingly, the environmental community hasn't really skewered these gels, which hold many times their weight in liquid (you can see how they work on this YouTube video). Some warn that the gel could irritate a baby's skin and others caution that if a diaper rips open a child might try to eat the dessicant. But these are not concerns that will keep most parents up at night.



It would seem that Seventh Generation is also trying to be eco-friendly by cutting down on materials. Its paper-bag brown diapers are the skimpiest ones I've ever seen. My daughter outgrows them long before she hits the weight limit that the packaging suggests.


If you are gel-wary, another Hain-Celestial brand, Tushies, is the only one that eschews it and blends the wood pulp filling with cotton instead. These diapers make up for their lack of chemical technology by being the biggest diapers I've ever seen. They work surprisingly well, but if you want a streamlined look under your child's onesie, this is not the brand for you.


As a potential environmental bonus, both the Tushies and Tendercare are made with wood pulp from certified sustainably grown forests, but the packaging doesn't say who has certified them (some wood certifications are better than others) and the company didn't respond to my inquiry about it.


Aside from using cloth diapers -- which is not the hands-down environmental winner you might expect, according to the Sierra Club -- the only way to skirt the landfill issue is by using a new reusable/disposable hybrid. Gdiaper and Kushies are two examples. They each involve a Velcro-tabbed cloth diaper and a lining that combines a reusable lining (plastic for Gdiaper; cotton for Kushies) and an insert that you can flush down the toilet.


They're an interesting idea, but I have to admit that in trying diapers out for this column, I chickened out on these. Disposing of them requires getting more closely involved with a child's dirty diapers than most parents probably want, as a Gdiaper video shows. And I can't imagine my daughter, or any other baby, waiting patiently while their parents put these contraptions together, as demonstrated in another video.


If you don't stand to gain as much as you like environmentally from eco-diapers, at the very least you don't have much to lose financially. At Drugstore.com they range in price from 26 cents to 30 cents apiece for the disposables, compared with 27 cents apiece for Pampers. The Gdiaper liners are about 36 cents apiece. Taking some of the chemicals out of the manufacturing process keeps them out of the eco-system and responsible forestry helps, too. So they aren't a total washout.



As for my friend who is worried about her carbon footprint, she can turn to a U.K. company called Carbon Clear, which recently began offering a carbon offset package for new parents. For just under £5 (around $10) the company will invest in carbon-reducing projects that will balance out the pollution from two and a half years of diapers.


If only we could get around of all of our parental guilt so easily.

 

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