The following article appeared in the Fall, 1988 edition of The Whole Earth Review. Since that time, disposable training pants and swim diapers have been added to the list of single use, throwaway products for infants. In addition, more and more adults also use these products. Thus, the figures used in this study are somewhat outdated. It is even worse today than when this was written 11 years ago.
An entire generation is growing up believing that the term “disposable diaper” is redundant: There’s only one thing you put on babies’ bottoms. They’re plastic, you get them in huge bags and boxes at the grocery store or the convenience store, and you fold them up; and toss them in the trash when they’re dirty. The product name itself is a misnomer, testament to the power of Madison Avenue and to our own Freudian neuroses surrounding our bodies and our wastes. For Huggies and Pampers and Luvs are not “disposable” at all. We throw about 18 billion of them away each year into trash cans and bags, believing they’ve gone to some magic place where they will safely disappear. The truth is, most of the plastic-lined “disposables” end up in landfills. There they sit, tightly wrapped bundles of urine and feces that partially and slowly decompose only over many decades. What started out as a marketer’s dream of drier, happier, more comfortable babies has become a solid-waste nightmare of squandered material resources, skyrocketing economics, and a growing health hazard, set against the backdrop of dwindling landfill capacity in a country driven by consumption.
The mythology surrounding contemporary diapering is a direct descendant of the modern-day waste ethic, whose roots are generally seen as economic. With profits based on sales, manufacturers have a built-in incentive to foster planned obsolescence. And so it is with diapers. The pure and honorable cotton diaper represents approximately 10 percent of the U. S. diaper market–even though it has a viable life of 80-100 uses. Capturing the other 90 percent of market share is, of course, the single-use, throwaway diaper.
Hidden Costs, Hidden Hazards
The sheer number of diapers being bought, used, and disposed of in our trash are mind-boggling. Industry statistics indicate that as many as 18 billion disposable diapers will be used in the U.S. this year (1988) –the end products of a market valued at more than $3 billion. Chalk up more than half of that to Proctor & Gamble, maker of Pampers and Luvs; 30% to Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies; and the rest to various generic or “house” brands. It’s easy to see how the numbers add up. In the midst of a baby boomers’ baby boom, 98 percent of all households using diapers use some disposables. And, as many parents know, a child can run through 8,000 to 10,000 diapers before becoming fully toilet trained.
The forerunner to today’s single-use diaper dates back to materials-scarce Sweden after World War II, where a two-piece diaper with a throw-away paper liner was designed. Not until decades later did U.S. industry introduce a single-use diaper–this, too, with an inner absorbent liner designed to be torn out and flushed down the toilet. Subsequent U.S. products combined the outer plastic portion and inner absorbent liner in a design that is at the root of many of today’s diaper-disposal headaches.
Today’s new and improved single-use diaper is made of an outer layer of waterproof polyethylene plastic. Sandwiched between the plastic and a water-repellent liner is a thick layer of an absorbent, cotton-like material made from wood pulp. A super-absorbent polymer that turns to gel when the baby urinates is embedded into the wood pulp of most U.S. single-use diapers.
Once they are used, roughly 90 percent to 95 percent of the 18-billion feces-and urine-filled disposable diapers enter the household trash stream and ultimately end up in landfills, creating an immediate public health hazard. Leachate containing viruses from human feces (including live vaccines from routine childhood immunizations) can leak into the Earth and pollute underground water supplies. In addition to the potential of groundwater contamination, air-borne viruses carried by flies and other insects contribute to an unhealthy and unsanitary situation. These viruses could include Hepatitis A, Norwalk and Rota Virus.
Although modern, single-use diaper packaging recommends rinsing feces in the toilet, this is impractical and is in fact discouraged by the one-piece diaper design, which does not allow the diaper to be torn apart easily. In addition, rinsing the tremendously absorptive, single-use diaper in the toilet produces a very full, very heavy, very wet diaper. For these and other reasons, it is doubtful that any more than 10 percent of parents actually rinse out single-use diapers as a matter of course.
This unsanitary practice of commingling untreated sewage and solid waste in landfills–of dumping raw sewage directly into the environment–should raise eyebrows among more than those whose job it is to oversee the public health.
Material waste is yet another consequence of reliance on single-use diapers. From the time a single-use diaper is put on a baby, it may have a useful life of a few hours at most. Since there is no other application of the single-use diaper, use of this product in the U.S. alone wastes nearly 100,000 tons of plastic and 800,000 tons of pulp derived from trees.
Add to these material losses the cost of collection and disposal. With the average U.S. landfill tipping fee about $27 per ton of material (some landfills are over $100 per ton), and the average transportation cost to landfills about $48 per ton, we pay an average of $75 per ton or $350 million annually in the U.S. to get rid of single-use diapers! For every consumer dollar spent on so-called disposable diapers, an additional, hidden cost of $0.10 on average goes to pay for disposal.
Few quantitative studies are available that provide numbers on the amount of diapers and fecal matter that end up in landfills. However, assuming that approximately 18 billion diapers are sold year each, and that over 90 percent of these ends up at landfills, this translates into more than 4,275,000 tons of disposable diapers trucked to landfills each year. Add the remaining 10 percent that end up in resource recovery plants for a total of 4,500,000 tons of single-use diapers thrown away this year.
To obtain the percentage of U.S. solid waste occupied by disposable diapers, begin with the assumption that the average American generates 1,000 pounds of solid waste each year. This is equivalent to 112 million tons of waste annually from households and some commercial sources, not including tires and yard waste. Assuming that the average used diaper weighs one-half pound when thrown away (authors’ personal conclusion), 4 percent of the total U.S. household solid waste stream is composed of single-use diapers.
Since each community’s solid waste stream differs, extrapolating to your own community may prove difficult; a scientific sampling could provide exact information. Differences in location, socioeconomic make-up, seasonal fluctuations, and other factors will yield diverse variations from one community to the next. It should be noted, too, that basing waste composition on weight as opposed to volume might also prove misleading. However, since tipping fees are most frequently calculated by weight, this has become a generally accepted practice.
The above notwithstanding, the estimate that disposable diapers make up 4 percent of household solid waste, and 3 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, is sure to catch most solid waste managers by surprise.
Burn ‘Em, Flush ‘Em, Compost ‘Em
Although most single-use diapers end up in landfills, a growing trend in the waste management industry, particularly in the heavily populated northeastern U.S., is the construction of waste-to-energy plants. These plants burn solid waste and produce electricity (mass-incinerators) or separate out a prepared fuel (RDF–refuse derived fuel). About 75 plants currently handle 7 percent of the total U.S. solid waste flow; another 60-plus are under construction. Some industry analysts predict that this will grow to 40 percent by the end of the century, although these estimates are considered optimistic by the author.
The development of mass-burn plants has been the source of heated discussion between environmentalists, who favor recycling and reusing materials, and proponents of waste-to-energy plants. In the case of single-use diapers, however, burning in resource plants appears to pose less of a societal problem than does dumping in landfills. Energy is obtained from the combustion, and the high temperatures destroy any dangerous viruses or bacteria. The diapers are reduced to ash (about 6 percent of the original weight becomes ash), which is then land filled.
Despite reducing the volume and eliminating the disease potential of single-use diapers, burning any waste will contribute to air pollution. Additionally, the value of the material used as fuel in mass incinerators (4-5 cents per pound) is one-eight the value of the materials if reused. As the trend towards building mass-incinerators and RDF facilities grows, so grows the volume of disposable diapers that end up as electricity, fumes, waste heat and ash. Although burning disposable diapers in mass-incineration may destroy dangerous pathogens, this solution is hardly optimum.
A growing emphasis is being placed on recycling solid waste. States such as New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut have targeted 25-percent recycling goals. New Jersey, California and Oregon already have aggressive recycling programs in place. As the recycling of household glass, cans, plastic and newspapers increase, the percentage of single-use diapers in the solid waste stream will also increase. For example, if single-use diapers make up 3 percent of the municipal solid waste stream today, that percentage will rise to 4 percent once a city or state achieves a recycling goal of 25 percent of solid waste.
The fact is, single-use diapers are specifically designed to be thrown away. Recycling or reusing them is problematic if not impossible, because of the difficulty in separating the product’s plastic materials from the cellulose (mostly wood pulp).
In another solid waste management scenario, today’s single-use diapers could be recycled in an environmentally sound manner by municipal composting. Commercial composting facilities, which have the potential to mix sewage sludge and municipal solid waste (co-composting), operate at high enough temperatures to kill dangerous viruses. The pulp, paper and human feces from diapers biodegrade into compost, while most of the plastic is screened out of the finish material. This plastic may then either be land filled or used as a fuel for burning in an RDF plant. Using biodegradable plastics would enhance this process.
Although composting municipal solid waste is widely practiced in Europe–where over 200 plants are now in operation–it is only recently gaining acceptance in the U.S. Here, construction of large mass-incinerators continues to be the most popular waste disposal technology. Composting of municipal solid waste and sewage sludge is expected to become increasingly popular in the U.S., as it represents a less capital intensive, simpler and more ecological approach to solid waste management. However, unless or until there is a drastic change in public policy or the direction of waste management technology in the conceivable future, most disposable diapers will be land filled or burned.
The most logical and environmental approach to disposal of a single-use product is flushing. The sewage waste stream is already equipped to handle urine, feces, and specific types of paper. Sludge recovered from sewage is suitable for recycling through land treatment, assuming that heavy metals from industry have not entered the sewage waste stream. Although present-day single-use diapers are not suitable for flushing down toilets, a new materials configuration could provide a single-use diaper liner that flushes safely. This would require that parents use a traditional nylon, cotton or wool diaper cover in conjunction with single-use diapers.
Although nearly 100 percent of single-use diapers could theoretically be eliminated from landfill disposal by a flushable product, diaper manufacturers have ignored the solid waste problems created by single-use diapers. They have instead focused on integrating super-absorbents (slurpers) into the diaper and adding more materials. Interestingly, the capabilities of some of these super-absorbing materials can just as easily enhance the prospects for a flushable diaper option, according to the author’s patent review and preliminary field testing. The major barrier to reintroducing a flushable diaper appears not to be plugged-up sewer lines, but a reduction in profits for manufacturers who would use fewer materials in each diaper.
Growing Options for Conscious Diapering
In an ironic shift, cotton diapers have now become the major “alternative” to single-use diapers. Even though most households with infants have a supply of cloth diapers on hand for clean-up and keeping shoulders clean, cotton diapers continue to lose market share to single-use diapers.
Even though diaper services serve less than 2 percent of families with children under three (author’s estimate), the industry is now beginning to experience a turn-around in business (note: this “turn around ended in 1991, and the diaper service industry is now smaller than when this article was written in 1988). The weekly diaper service picks up soiled, unrinsed diapers, professionally launders them, and delivers clean diapers to the home. Unfortunately, they are often not available in rural or small-town areas. Once considered an elitist luxury for an advantaged few, diaper services can today be a necessary overhead item for dual-career couples with small children.
At anywhere from $9-$12 per week (1988), diaper services still make more economic sense when compared to the $15 that parents spend on single-use diapers–especially when the hidden costs of disposal are factored in. The following analysis does not take into account the value of labor for home washing, which, the author knows from personal experience, can be considerable.
In addition to the economic advantages cotton diapers have over single-use diapers, they are reused from 80 to 100 times each. Plus, the environmental and economic benefits of keeping feces-and urine-filled diapers out of the solid waste stream are substantial, and should not be overlooked by policymakers seeking ways to reduce the growing solid waste burden.
Although single-use diaper manufacturers have succeeded in convincing the public that diaper rashes are a normal, expected part of early childhood, independent tests and the author’s own evaluation have demonstrated that rashes are far less frequent with cotton diapers. Although certainly more ecological than single-use diapers, cotton diapers are not perfect either; the larger perspective is marred by the significant laundering requirements of large quantities of water, energy and detergents. As well, home laundering is the least sanitary diapering option when compared to single-use diapers or professional diaper services.
Outright limitations on certain products are not out of the question, as highlighted in a recent solid waste survey of New Hampshire municipal officials. In that survey, 68 percent of respondents indicated they would favor legislative limits or bans on some plastic products. Twenty-one states and many European countries have already introduced legislation to limit or ban plastic packaging waste.
Alternative diapering approaches have not been taken seriously because few recognize the health and solid waste problems created by single-use diapers going to landfills. It also has proven difficult to confront the waste ethic successfully in the U.S., when consumers and marketers place such a disproportionate value on “convenience”. Few environmentalists, cotton diaper services or health proponents can be heard above the public relations and marketing clout exercised by a Proctor & Gamble or Kimberley-Clark.
But, as difficult as it is, we must confront the waste ethic. We have now reached the point where it has become unacceptable to continue to landfill over 16 billion diapers each year. The decreasing availability of landfill space and the increasing and hidden costs of single-use diapers are likely to provide the societal pressure to change diapering modes (note: not so far!).
There are alternatives to sending nearly 10,000 plastic-and-pulp diapers per child to the landfill. Cotton diapers, whether washed at home or by a diaper service, admittedly may require lifestyle and diapering mode changes by many parents and caregivers. Conscious diapering, like conscious living, requires parents and others to think about what they are putting on their children’s bodies and where it will ultimately go.
Economic policy should provide incentives to diaper services, which create local jobs as well as diminish the need to landfill single-use diapers. Relying on the same “carrot” approach, incentives for diaper manufacturers to develop a flushable option certainly are more desirable than a ban on single-use diapers from landfills. Incentives to daycare facilities, hospitals and institutions to switch to reusable diapers, gowns and bedding would complement the proven economic advantages of reuse over single-use products. And finally, eliminating landfills as our primary mode of “disposal” and replacing them with resource conservation, recycling and composting, will require a shift in the waste management industry. There are alternatives to disposable products, but they require conscious–often demanding–choices by individuals, industry and government.
The single-use diaper has gotten a free ride for too long. It is time that parents, health care providers, solid waste managers and public policy makers begin to consider seriously the problems caused by, and the alternatives to, the single-use diaper. It’s time for a change!