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Let's Be Honest, Episode 29: Diapers

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

Becoming a parent means taking on a spectrum of new responsibilities. The dawning of parenthood brings major changes in life, as well as changes in your purchases and the cost of them, both financial and environmental.

The Disposable Diaper - Unavoidable Menace to the Environment

Just how long does a baby diaper spend in a landfill until it is gone? Among the variety of items discarded, disposable diapers are estimated to decompose the longest, in fact, up to 500 years [1]. To put it into context, styrofoam packaging takes 50 years to decompose, cigarette butts last up to 5, leather goods as much as 40 years, but plastic bottles - up to 450 years [2].

Cellulose, polypropylene, polyethylene and absorbent polymer are the components of a diaper, all put together for the diaper's design, easy use and effectiveness [3]. The environmental impact of disposable diapers is an issue not to be overlooked, though.

Let's go back to the beginning: the manufacturing of diapers alone is powered by non-renewable resources and requires chemicals that are damaging to the environment. [4]. Synthetic dye and perfumes in diapers are responsible for harmful compounds being released into the air. Another thing is that the types of plastic that are used to produce diapers cannot be recycled. Then the discarded diapers emit methane and other toxic gasses amidst decomposition in the landfills. What is more, the faecal contents of disposables that reside in landfills are at the risk of being drained out into groundwaters.

For a newborn, some eight to twelve diapers are utilised per day [5]. Not only does it generate heaps of waste, but it also becomes very costly for the new parents. The total number of disposable diapers that a baby would need until it is fully potty trained mounts up to 6,000. On a broader scale, 7 percent of all nondurable household waste in landfills are disposable diapers, a 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report tells us [6]. The report also demonstrates that usage of disposables has seen a rise over the past 50 years. And, although a larger share of the utilised diapers are successfully combusted for Energy Recovery, the sheer quantity remains painstakingly high.

But the thing is, these vast numbers cannot be traced back to consumer irresponsibility. Diapers are an indispensable hygiene item for infants and toddlers. Surely these figures lie heavily on the shoulders of soon-to-be parents, as the disposable diapers are more convenient and accessible than their more sustainable counterparts. But at the end of the day, babies need to be diapered, everyday.

Is the Sustainable Alternative Truly Sustainable?

What adds to the challenge is that the common greener alternative, namely cloth diapers, might not be so green either. Since it is to be utilised every day, a cloth diaper does pile up the laundry load, which costs the environment heaps of hot water. Not to mention, cloth diapers are made out of cotton, which is a chemically dependent crop. The efficiency of switching to reusable diapers lies within the washing methods. Laundering in higher temperatures and mostly line-drying would cause carbon emissions of almost the same scale as using disposable diapers [7]. The damage is truly reduced when these cloth diapers are bought second hand, washed in larger loads, and exclusively line-dried.

A third solution to the acute diaper necessity is using bamboo diapers. The eco-friendly substitute is biodegradable and sourced from renewable eco-crop [8]. Bamboo - the absolute leader material of sustainable products - does not require pesticides or herbicides to grow as much as 90 centimetres a day. As well as it is absorbent to carbon dioxide [9]. Generally, plant-based diapers are becoming somewhat of a trend given the harsh reality of the disposable, non-biodegradable standard.


The question remains: how selective can we be? New parents know that eco-friendly diapers tend to be more costly than regular ones. And maybe even less accessible, as a lot of stores don't carry plant-based diaper brands. Supplying your baby with diapers can get rather expensive as is, therefore, the additional cost for a more environmentally conscious option is a privilege not everyone can afford. And the swap for a cloth diaper means that there is more work to be implemented with properly washing and maintaining the diapers. Which again, may prove to be burdensome for an overworked parent.

Perhaps the consoling conclusion here is that whatever your decision regarding diapers may be, it requires a little mindfulness. Even if you opt for disposable diapers, you may want to follow the instructions on the packaging that often tell you to wash the faecal contents before disposal [10]. Or if you choose the cloth diaper, avoid being reckless with excessive laundering. May some of these options solve your dilemmas of early parenthood, bring comfort to the baby and protect the environment.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. Disposable Diapers Add Millions Of Tons Of Waste To Landfills Each Year, According To EPA Report | PR Newswire

  2. How Long Does It Take Everyday Items To Decompose | Ascension

  3. How Diapers Are Made | Diaper Answers

  4. Diapers - Cloth or Disposable | McGill

  5. A New Parent's Guide to Estimating How Many Diapers You Need and What They'll Cost | Parents

  6. Nondurable Goods: Product-Specific Data | EPA

  7. Cloth vs. Disposable Diapers | NY Times

  8. Is Bamboo Sustainable? | Eco & Beyond

  9. Bamboo Diapers vs. Cotton Diapers: What's the Difference? | Eco Pea

  10. The Environmental Impact of Disposable Diapers | Stacker