Babies do a lot of pooping. In fact, the average baby goes through 6-8 diapers a day. Your baby will use between 7000–11,000 diapers before potty training around 40 months old. If you use disposables and disposable wipes, this costs about $75–$100 a month retail—at least $3,500 per child!
According to a 2010 study, one-third of U.S. mothers are cutting back on basic necessities (such as food, utilities, and childcare) to buy diapers for their children. But as much as disposable diapers cost individual families, they cost us even more as a nation and as a planet.
Consider these alarming facts you may not know about disposable diapers:
Approximately 90-95% of American babies use 27.4 billion single-use, plastic diapers every year. This generates 7.6 billion pounds of garbage each year—enough waste to fill Yankee Stadium 15 times over, or stretch to the moon and back 9 times. Every year. Disposable diapers are the 3rd largest consumer item in landfills, and represent 30% of non-biodegradable waste. The only other items that outnumber the amount of disposables in landfills are newspapers and beverage and food containers. Sorry Tim..
Even though it may seem as if an individual child doesn’t contribute much to those numbers, each baby wearing disposable diapers creates about 2000 pounds of garbage over the course of two years (Yeah, that’s literally a ton of toxic waste. Could you imagine having to bury it in your yard?).
A myth out there is that diapers decompose. They don't. Plastic does not decompose because it is an oil by product like tires. Now parts of the diaper will break down over time. It takes hundreds of years for disposable diapers to breakdown when exposed to sunlight and air. Since diapers are dumped into landfills, covered and not exposed to sun or air at all, nobody knows how many hundreds—or even thousands—of years they could be around.
Without sun and air, even so-called “eco-friendly” diapers labeled biodegradable do NOT biodegrade in landfills, and cause just as much of a problem as regular diapers. Yet sadly, in the five minutes it will take you to read this article, another 200,000 throwaway diapers will enter landfills in the U.S. where they will sit for at least 500 years before decomposing.
In other words, if Christopher Columbus had worn Pampers, his poop would still be intact in some landfill today.
If the costs associated with needlessly landfilling diapers weren’t enough, consider that our landfills contain 5 million tons of untreated human waste, a breeding ground for diseases that could potentially contaminate our groundwater. The EPA notes that “…a significant portion of the disposable diaper waste dumped in American’s landfills every year is actually biodegradable human waste preserved forever.”Ew.
When you toss a disposable into the trash can, you are adding to the 84 million pounds of raw fecal matter going into the environment every year. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Public Health Association advise parents that fecal matter and urine should NOT be disposed of in the regular trash, because it contaminates the ground water and spreads disease.
In fact, printed on the side of every disposable diaper package are instructions for rinsing the diaper and flushing the fecal material down the toilet before putting it into the trash!
Have you EVER seen anyone rinse out a disposable, much less dump out the poop into the toilet?
Disposables Help Increase Gas Prices
We, as a nation, pay through the nose for disposable diapers throughout their life-cycle. Even factoring in the water and energy used to launder cloth diapers, in the full-cost accounting, from farm to factory to storefront, compared to cloth diapers, disposables:
- create 2.3 times more water waste,
- use 3.5 times more energy,
- use 8.3 times more non-renewable raw materials (like oil and minerals),
- use 90 times more renewable raw materials (like tree pulp and cotton),
- and use 4 to 30 times as much land for growing or mining raw materials.
Let’s break it down further…
A disposable diaper is practically dripping in oil. Oil is the raw material for the polyethylene plastic in disposables and it takes about 1 cup of crude oil just to make the plastic for 1 disposable diaper. Taking that a bit further, assuming you use at least 6,500 diapers, this means that it takes about 1,538 liters of oil to diaper your baby for 30 months—not including the oil involved in the diapers’ manufacture and delivery.
Yes, that’s right: It takes more oil to keep your baby dry for 2-1/2 years than it does to lubricate all the cars you will ever own in your lifetime.
For the nation, this means that over 250,000 trees are destroyed and over 3.4 billion gallons of oil are used every single year to manufacture disposable diapers in the United States. For that amount of oil, we could have powered over 5,222,000 cars in the same time period.
The importance of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels through our diaper choices cannot be overestimated. Using up what little affordable oil we have left on this planet to improperly manage baby poop is possibly the stupidest use of oil we could think of, besides the disposable water bottle.
Such recklessly wasteful use of oil threatens not only our environmental security, but also our economic and homeland security, too. As we waste all the easy, cheap-to-produce oil we have left on unnecessary conveniences like disposable diapers and water bottles, we will increasingly have to rely on risky, costly-to-produce oil from deep in the ocean, the pristine Arctic, the Tar sands, and the Mideast and Venezuela, and suffer the price hikes, environmental disasters, and scary, scarcity politics that go with that.
Would you go to war for the resources to continue to cover our children’s bottoms in sweaty, chemical-laden plastic? Oh yeah, we already did.
If the toxic waste and the misuse of oil weren’t bad enough, disposable diapers are toxic to your baby too.
Baby’s poorly developed outer skin layer absorbs about 50 different chemicals if you use disposable diapers, wipes and standard baby products. This can be greatly reduced by using cloth diapers and natural baby products.
One of the dangers of disposable diapers is that they all contain something called Sodium Polyacrylate. Even the “eco-friendly” diapers contain this chemical, too. This is the chemical added to the inner pad of a disposable that makes it super-absorbent.
When the powder gets wet, it turns into a gel that:
- Can absorb up to 100 times its weight in water.
- Can stick to baby’s genitals, causing allergic reactions.
- Can cause severe skin irritation, oozing blood from perineum and scrotal tissues, fever, vomiting and staph infections in babies.
- Was banned from tampons in 1985 because of its link to Toxic Shock Syndrome.
- When injected into rats, has caused hemorrhage, cardiovascular failure and death.
- Has killed children after ingesting as little as 5 grams of it.
These are the small, shiny, gelatinous crystals that you will sometimes find in your baby’s private parts during diaper changing.
Yes, you should be alarmed.
Most disposable diapers also contain Dioxin. This is a chemical by-product of the paper-bleaching process used in the manufacturing of most diapers. Dioxin is carcinogenic. In fact, the EPA lists it as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals. In small quantities it causes birth defects, skin disease, liver disease, immune system suppression & genetic damage in lab animals. Dioxin is banned in most countries, but not the United States or Canada.
And if dioxin and sodium polyacrylate weren’t toxic enough, many disposable diapers contain Tributyl Tin (TBT). Considered a highly toxic environmental pollutant, TBT spreads through the skin and has a hormone-like effect in the tiniest concentrations. TBT harms the immune system and impairs the hormonal system, and it is speculated that it could cause sterility in boys.
Even worse, in 1999, a study showed that childhood respiratory problems, including asthma, might be linked to inhaling the mixture of chemicals emitted from disposable diapers. The study identified these chemicals in emissions from two brands of disposable diapers (specific brands tested were not disclosed):
- Methyl cinnamate
Study authors concluded,
“The results demonstrate that some types of disposable diapers emit mixtures of chemicals that are toxic to the respiratory tract. Disposable diapers should be considered as one of the factors that might cause or exacerbate asthmatic conditions.”
The dangers of disposable diapers are profound. For your baby’s sake, please dump the Poison Pampers (or Huggies, Luvs, Seventh Generation, etc.) right away.
Disposables Cause Rashes
Even if sodium polyacrylate was completely safe, the super-absorbent qualities of disposable diapers are not really the blessing they seem to be. Super-absorbent disposables can do three things:
Facilitate less diaper changing from parents, which leads to rashes because of exposure to the super-absorbent chemicals, bacteria, and ammonia from accumulated urine in the diaper. I alway laugh when someone says that a box of disposables lasts them a month yet in the same breath they say they change their baby every 4 hours.
Reduce air circulation and pull natural moisture (not just urine) our of your baby’s skin—which can cause irritation.
Raise the temperature of a baby boy’s scrotum far above body temperature, to the point that it can stop his testicles from developing normally, according to a study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Widespread diaper rash is a relatively new phenomenon that surfaced in tandem with the widespread use of disposable diapers, and is now found in over half of all North American babies. While diaper rashes can be caused by a variety of problems (food allergies, yeast, etc.), the majority of these rashes come from allergies to diaper and wipe chemicals, lack of air, higher temperatures (because plastic retains body heat), and being changed less often because babies feel dry when they are actually wet.
Certain dyes used to add colour to disposable diapers have been shown to cause allergic reactions resulting in rashes. Repeated exposure to the dye can cause a long-term allergy. One study (Alberta et al., 2005) that looked at several babies who suffered from rashes found that the rashes only occurred in places where the skin was in direct contact with the dyed part of the diaper. Researchers believe that it is the continued exposure to the dyes that causes a sensitization, or allergic reaction, in babies.
The study also found the following chemicals in disposable diapers to be associated with allergic contact dermatitis (skin rash):
- Mercaptobenzothiazole (rubber chemical)
- P-tert-butyl-phenol-formaldehyde resin (glue)
- Cyclohexylthiophthalimide (found in rubber)
Since prolonged exposure to a hot, dirty, chemical-laden diaper is the most common cause of diaper rashes, super-absorbent diapers may actually encourage parents to leave them on longer, causing these rashes.
Think about it. How many times have you stuck your finger into the leg of your baby’s bulging disposable diaper, and decided it was dry enough to stay on for another hour? (Tell the truth now, we’ve all done it.
With a cloth diaper, when it is wet, it feels wet inside, and must be changed, because babies really dislike the feeling of eliminating on themselves. (Who does?) It is for this same reason that using cloth diapers facilitates earlier potty learning.
Frequent changing, in addition to the cool, breathable fabric of cloth diapers, significantly reduces diaper rashes. And with no toxic chemicals, cloth diapers can’t cause allergic dermatitis either.
Making the Switch to Cloth Diapers
Reusable cloth diapers offer a solution to all the cost, health and environmental problems of disposables, but their benefits have been hidden by the billions of advertising dollars spent by Proctor & Gamble, et. al. over the last 50 years to misinform parents like us and gain a stranglehold on the market.
But even the best PR firm can’t beat the rising tide of families who demand better for their babies and the planet!
Today’s cloth diapers are as effective as any disposable, and they come in lots of styles, sizes and super-cute colours and prints! With velcro, snaps, fleece, and soft, PUL nylon covers, the old diaper pins and sweaty, plastic pants are now a relic of the past.
You Can Make a Difference
If you currently use cloth diapers, you can empower other parents to use cloth diapers too. How? Here are some ideas from the Real Diaper Association for doing cloth diaper outreach in your community.
Share this article widely.
Post on Facebook or Tweet, inviting friends to ask you about cloth diapers.
Blog or write about cloth diapering.
Host a Cloth Diaper 101 class with a local mom’s group, daycare centre, hospital, or birth centre. Call us and we can help.
Write to a local TV station or newspaper asking them to feature cloth diapers.
Together we can help more parents make better-informed choices about diapering their little ones. In the infamous words of Margaret Mead:
“Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Sources and More Information:
Alberta, Lauren, Susan M. Sweeney, and Karen Wiss. “Diaper Dye Dermatitis.” Pediatrics 116 (2005): 450-52.
Anderson RC, Anderson JH. “Acute respiratory effects of diaper emissions.” Arch Environ Health. 1999 Sep-Oct;54(5):353-8.
Davis, James A., James J. Leyden, Gary L. Grove, and William J. Raynor. “Comparison of Disposable Diapers with Fluff Absorbent and Fluff Plus Absorbent Polymers: Effects on Skin Hydration, Skin PH, and Diaper Dermatitis.” Pediatric Dermatology 6.2 (2008): 102-08.
DeVito, Michael J., and Arnold Schecter. “Exposure Assessment to Dioxins from the Use of Tampons and Diapers.” Environmental Health Perspectives 110.1 (2002): 23-28.
H.R.Y. Prasad, Pushplata Srivastava, and Kaushal K. Verma. “Diapers and skin care: Merits and Demerits.” Indian Journal of Pediatrics 73.10 (2004): 907-908.
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“New Tests Confirm TBT Poison in Procter & Gamble’s Pampers®: Greenpeace Demands World-Wide Ban of Organotins in All Products,” 15 May 2000,
Allison, Cathy. “Disposable Diapers: Potential Health Hazards.,” referring to: Hicks, R et al. “Characterization of toxicity involving hemorrhage and cardiovascular failure, caused by parenteral administration of a soluble polyacrylate in the rat,” Journal of Applied Toxicology 1989 June; 9(3): 191-8.
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