Friday, December 12, 2008

From crappy Pampers to happy campers

This was a tough one. I try to do my part to minimize my negative impacts on my local environment, and I make time to volunteer and undo other people's negative impacts. So every time I threw away a disposable diaper, I cringed a little. Diapers are made of plastic and paper, which means landfilling persistent waste and cutting trees. But, I cringed even more at the thought of everything you have to do with cloth diapers. I also thought about a diaper service, but this still means dealing with cloth diapers and it means the diaper van makes a couple of trips to the house every week.
As it turns out, I was dead-wrong about cloth diapers. The image that kept creeping into my head, that of trying to work origami out of a cloth square, in the dark, while wrestling with a squirming baby, is just a piece of historical fiction. Unbeknownst to me, cloth diapers had secretly become smartly designed and easy to deal with at some point in the recent past. Several vendors make fully reusable diapers, and at least one makes what I'll call "hybrid diapers" that include a disposable pad in a reusable shell. Forget big cloth squares and safety pins. The new ones are contoured, don't require a bunch of folding, and rely on Velcro.
My wife and I have been using Bum Genius diapers (one of the fully reusable types)since the baby was about 10 weeks old (he's now 9 months old), and they've been working great. They're easy to get on and off and they clean easily and completely. We haven't had any more problems with leaks than with disposable diapers. My back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analysis tells me that we've already recouped the initial investment, even allowing for some very rough recurring costs for water and energy to keep them clean.
That said, it does take longer to change the diaper, because it has to be rinsed after use. And, once in a while, there is that moment of abject panic when I open the diaper and realize that I have to clean it. Also, this is not a solution that lends itself to being away from home for long. My wife and I still use some disposable diapers when we're out. However, we've cut our use of disposables by about 3/4.
Be aware that this involves the Fundamental Waste-Water-Energy Trade-off. When we trade a disposable product for a reusable one, this generally means that we increase our local use of water and energy to maintain the reusable product. This becomes even more confusing, when you consider all of the water and energy that goes into producing the disposable products vice the reusable one, and all of the energy (and potentially water) that goes into disposal. Of course, disposable diapers are also largely made from pulp, which is made from trees; there are some petroleum-based plastics and adhesives thrown-in for good measure...
Needless to say, a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis would be tedious and time-consuming (I might use the word "torturous"), if not impossible. So we have to use what we know about our respective situations, toss in some common sense, and make our best estimate as to whether or not this is a good choice for a particular household.
If you live in a place with water issues like Phoenix, Atlanta, or near the Ogalala Aquifer, washing lots of reusable diapers probably isn't an environmentally sound decision. In those areas, water conservation is likely a more important issue than the municipal solid waste stream. For someone like me, living on the edge of Megapolis, in an area with ample water, the reduced waste that comes with the reusable diapers is a good option.
Think about your own situation and decide whether or not this works for you. If you're not sure, ask friends who know local environmental issues, consult Google, or post some questions here.
Oh, right, "Be the solution."

Image courtesy of the author.


Pat Jenkins said...

how could you of possibly produced such a good looking offspring erd?... he he!!... dude you got to just throw those things away!!!! come on man!!!

Sue said...

I may not have had any of my own children, but I've changed thousands of diapers in my babysitter/nanny days (yup I can include "nanny" on my lengthy resume). Moreover my (extensive) diaper experience was in the very early years of disposables. Diapers are definitely one of those things where it is sometimes difficult to know what is the best thing to do. You highlighted many of the dilemmas. Another one, is where the solid wastes end up. In the traditional cloth diaper, the solid wastes are rinsed into the toilet and are processed through sewage systems. With disposable diapers and some of the newer hybrid forms, the solid wastes end up in landfills. Both have environmental/human health drawbacks.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thank you. I like to think he's a pretty sharp-looking kid, myself.
It was a tough call because of the water issues, but on the whole, I think he'll be better off with less trash to deal with.

E. R. Dunhill said...

The wastewater thing is a whole other can of worms. In my neck of the woods, it gets even further complicated by the fact that some solids from the wastewater treatment facilities are composted and put to practical use.