Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Scoop on Poop: A Post Earth Day Wrap Up

Let's dish, in a grown-up kind of way, a little potty-talk.

Allen Hershkowitz, a scientist and director of the solid waste program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, got the ball rolling a few weeks ago when he was quoted in an AP article that looked at both the golden anniversary of Pampers and the resurgence of cloth:

“A compelling argument for getting rid of disposable diapers absolutely does not exist. It’s a personal choice, but it really can’t be made on environmental grounds. There are costs both ways.”


Not so much if you look at what’s been written, even on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s own site.

Back in 2007, Sheryl Eisenberg wrote “Revisiting the Diaper Debate” on the Council’s This Green Life Journal. She cited the 1990 study that showed no significant difference in environmental impact between disposable and cloth diapers. That study, she pointed out, was conducted by Procter and Gamble. The sponsor behind the subsequent study that found cloth diapers were better for the environment? The National Association of Diaper Services.

A tug of war has often existed in this debate, leaving many, like Eisenberg, to suggest that if neither choice is without impact, it’s a third option that puts less burden on the earth: infant potty training.

But it was convenience and presumably not environmental or developmental considerations that first prompted Victor Mills, a chemical engineer and new grandfather at Proctor and Gamble, to tweak what was then the unpopular and expensive disposable diaper. Although disposables now dominate the market, it was once, obviously, the other way around.

The Pampers website recites the product’s history in condensed pop culture shorthand. Mad Men fans fretting about its return with season five, have no fear. Just visualize this walk through disposable diaper history:

We’re told that while some folks went to Woodstock, Procter and Gamble took to the department and drug stores. When a generation turned to bell bottoms and 8-tracks, P&G replaced the safety pin with tape. When the country fell in love with Wall Street, Pampers added the Value Pack. And, around the time Cuba Gooding Jr. won an Oscar, they introduced Ultra Thins. Today, perhaps because of the preponderance of cute organic cotton/hemp reusable diapers, they speak of their latest addition: diapers that breathe.

Pampers and other disposables also makes up “about 1.5 percent of all municipal waste generated in the United States, and municipal waste makes up about 2 percent of all waste from all sources” according to the AP article by Leanne Italie.

Disposable diapers still cost more than reusables and the NRDC statement notwithstanding, they are viewed as less earth-friendly, in particular, if not absolute ways, than their cloth counterparts.

The makers of gDiapers remind us of that very idea. These “hybrid” diapers can use either a biodegradable insert made of “sustainably farmed wood fluff pulp, sodium polyacrylate and cellulose rayon” or one made of cloth. They maintain a “Cradle to Cradle” design, a concept that turns waste, the website says “into a resource” not more garbage.

And, there is enough interest in cloth to spur a growing presence of smaller mom and pop shops online, such as Madison’s Sprout Change, which employs area moms in the making of their products (and has posted a few of my non-diaper related posts on the environment on their site) and the Colorado company GoGreen Pocket Diapers.

Just a few days ago, on Earth Day, in fact, those who advocate the virtues of cloth diapers attempted to set a world record with The Great Cloth Diaper Change. The organizers hoped at least 10,000 babies in 400 locations would have their cloth diapers changed at exactly the same time.

So, instead of asking what form of diaper is best for the earth, maybe the question is: how does anyone decide what to do?

A 2009 article in US News and World Report, “Why Some People Go Green—and Others Don’t” by Matthew Bandyk tried to answer that. Bandyke took a look at the book, You Are What You Choose, by Duke social scientists, Scott di Marchi and James T. Hamilton.

If I can sum up a summary, here's what defines the personality of someone likely to go Green.

They are “idea” consumers, who think about the intangible element of what they buy. They commonly have the trait of altruism, and thrive on the feeling derived from “doing good.” They are described as “Time Minders” who consider the long-term cost benefit even if it means a short-term loss. And, they are can be swayed by what is called the “Me Too” mentality, going with the flow of their social network to “go green”. This trait, the authors note, can work in the opposite direction as well, however.

Six years ago, I sat on the fence of indecision.

My mother, A Time Magazine Ocean Hero who a few years before had told me that if we served overfished Chilean Sea Bass at our wedding everyone would hate me, offered some equally direct advice.

“If you use cloth diapers, nobody will want to baby sit for you.”

Was it a general Nobody? Or was it a specific, I changed my last cloth diaper four decades ago -Grandmother-kind-of-Nobody?

I didn’t risk finding out. Or explaining the newest in poop-catching innovation.

Which is why I say, whatever our environmental position, and however much we are influenced by the marketplace or culture, the diaper we use (and how we came to the choice of using it) often feels as unique and specific to our own lives as the child whose bottom it so reliably protects.

PS- After this post ran, I was able to touch base with Catherine Bolden, who after many years of trial and error developed Sprout Change reusable diapers.  I first met Catherine in the blogging world when she posted a few of my blogs on non-diaper related issues, and I am grateful to her for keeping this dialogue going, despite my family’s “disposable” diaper status.

Considering she’d made reusable diapers and products her life’s work, what was her response to the much talked about statement by the NRDC scientist? This is part of her reply, looking at the bigger picture and specific comparisons between diapers:

“...Our future is not just about reusable diapers, but an entire lifestyle shift. It's choosing a more sustainable, reusable future for everyone. That also happens to save money. We have the chance now to make a difference, to give our kids a better future. A very wise bumper sticker once said, "If we don't change directions, we'll end up where we're going." This simple sentence really made me think. Who do you want to be? What future do you want to leave your babies with? ....”

“...Disposables use tons of plastic! Petroleum is not a renewable resource. Yes, water is used in washing cloth diapers, but water will recycle much faster than oil! Yes, cloth uses energy in washing, but the manufacturing of so many disposables over the years, cannot ever begin to compare. Cloth diapers do not usually use anywhere near the level of chemicals. Disposable diaper manufacturing involves the release of a cocktail of chemicals into the environment that affect the water quality for the creatures that live in it or drink it. We're all connected. Something that happens to one creature on this earth affects us all. It's the circle of life.”


Ellie said...

We decided to use cloth diapers for our daughter, both for economic and environmental reasons. Before she was born everyone told us it was a bad decision, cloth diapers are too much work and we'd never last. It was a great choice for us and not that much more work once you get used to it. I now try to encourage other mom's who ask to use them and only wish that more daycares would accept them. That being said, what diapers parents choose to use is their decision and I do understand the draw of disposables.

Indylex said...

I like the idea of using cloth, but was overwhelmed by the choices. I did buy some bum genius only to have them leak like crazy. Considering that we have very little time at home each night, did I want to spend that time washing diapers and stuffing them for the next day? I still have guilt about using disposables but I am working on letting that go. :)

Edith said...

We wanted to use gDiapers but they just never fit right. Our daughter wet through the covers every time. So we went with disposables but have tried to stay as green as possible by using Seventh Generation and Earth's Best.

Tim Morrissey said...

My sister was an executive with Kimberly-Clark for 35 years, in charge of protecting patents for the Pampers product line. She always said enviromentally speaking, it was a toss-up between disposables and cloth (though we tended to doubt the "research" KC did), but convenience was the trump card.

This is similar to the debate between paper or plastic bags at grocery stores. You can find plenty of "facts" on both sides of the issue.

Lunch Box Mom said...

I wanted to thank people for leaving comments. Tim--as usual, your insight and connection to these issues always astounds me, and Ellie, Indylex, and Edith--great to have you here in the comment section and know more about your choices.

Anonymous said...

Diaper service for all three. Not only was it better for the environment, it was better for their butts.

jcp said...

Thanks for writing on the subject! Always informative. I've read a ton on the subject, and since I'm 2 weeks out from baby's birth, I must say the options are confusing. I plan to try 3 methods (gDiapers, 7th Generation, and washable). My hope is that washables win out, because I believe they're healthier for the baby and the world (I have to believe that 5000 plastic diapers in a landfill for hundreds of years is worse).

Anonymous said...

I babysat for a family with 5 kids, 3 of the kids wore diapers. This was the early eighties when hardly anyone used disposables. When I changed, I used two diapers at a time, that's how the mom did it and showed me, with a liner inside down the middle. Diapers were pinned to hold, one pin on each side, rubber pants over top. Changed diapers went into a large plastic pail for washing. It wasn't difficult and it didn't make me not want to babysit.

A few years later I was a mom and went straight for the cloth at the store. I stayed at home so using cloth diapers seemed right, proper. Two mothers who lived either side to us did the same. Good friend across town also did the same.