The Danger of Disposable Diapers
In recent years there has been a growing awareness of various environmental problems that all life on Earth is facing – water, air and soil pollution, ozone layer depletion, toxic waste, overuse of natural resources, among others. Governments and corporations are trying to mitigate this problem through policies, legislations, supporting sustainable development and making businesses eco-friendlier. This course of action wasn’t initiated by the governments or corporations themselves, but rather by concerned individuals who pressured these institutions to change their policies. As a collective, we are responsible for most of the environmental issues, but we need to take individual responsibility to solve them. Keeping in check our consuming habits is the first step on the way.
One of the seemingly harmless habits that has significant effect on the environment is the everyday use of disposable diapers. Most parents cannot imagine raising a child without them, but they are a relatively new invention. Disposables replaced cloth diapers in the early 70’s. That seemed like a reasonable move because compared to cloth diapers disposables consume less time, don’t require washing and their absorbency helps to keep the baby dry. Disposable diaper technology has continued to evolve since the 70’s and almost a thousand patents related to diaper design and production have been issued in the last twenty-five years. It has become a whole industry with billions of dollars in revenue. Kimberly Clark and Proctor and Gamble are the two largest manufacturers, and their sales account for almost 80% of the market. Highlighting their practical value with proper advertisement, these companies managed to convince millions of parents that disposables are a necessity without giving proper solution to the problem of their disposal.
But are disposable diapers really necessary? With our current knowledge, we ought to ask that question, because numerous studies have shown that they can be very harmful to human health and the environment.
To understand fully the dangers of disposable diapers, we need to look at their life cycle, what are they made of, what chemicals do they contain and release over time.
Disposable diapers consist of an absorbent pad between two sheets of non-woven fabric. These are made of cotton, cellulose, polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), absorbent polymers, some elastics and adhesive materials. We need to also take into account the ecological footprint of producing these materials to understand the full environmental effect of disposable diapers.
Cotton requires large quantities of water during growth and processing, making its production unsustainable considering ecological water consumption. Polyethylene and polypropylene are plastic polymers made from petrochemicals notorious for their environmental impact.
Process of making disposable diapers consumes around 10 billion liters of fuel oil and more than 500 000 trees every year in the US alone. It is easy to conclude that the production which consumes that much resources and has toxic byproducts is environmentally unsustainable.
Toxic chemicals and adverse health effects
Negative environmental impact of disposable diapers is very significant, but first – let`s see how they affect the youngest members of our society.
As previously mentioned, disposable diapers are partly made of polypropylene and polyethylene. Important, but often overlooked quality of PP and PE is leaching of residual additives, monomers and oligomers that have adverse health effects on humans and other mammals. A study from 2011 concluded that most plastic products release chemicals with estrogenic activity. Estrogens are female sex hormones and their repeated intake has serious effects on health for both male and female babies.
The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (ANSES) conducted a research related to safety of disposable diapers and released the report in January this year. The results were alarming - most of the diapers included in the study had traces of 60 different toxic chemicals. More than 30 of those chemicals were present in dangerous concentrations. Substances found in the samples included hexachlorobenzene and glyphosate (pesticides known for their carcinogenic effect), dioxins, furans, formaldehyde, just to name a few.
Diapers also contain sodium polyacrylate, a super-absorbent polymer that can hold up to 100-300 times its weight in water. This substance functions as an absorbent and collects the baby`s pee and poop. A similar chemical was used for tampons until the 80`s, when it was revealed that sodium polyacrylate improves growth of toxigenic bacteria and increases the risk of toxic shock syndrome. Why are we exposing the most fragile members of our society to such chemicals?
Disposable diapers don’t have negative effects on children`s health only because of their chemical content. A very controversial study came out in 2000, which suggested that disposable plastic and cotton diapers could potentially reduce fertility in boys. Namely, the diapers increase testicular temperature which causes the natural testicular cooling mechanism to weaken or even completely abolish during diaper use. This cooling mechanism is important for fertility
Environmental impact of disposal
The vast majority of disposable diapers not recyclable. After being used they are thrown out with general waste. Most of that waste ends up in landfills, where it slowly decomposes (it takes centuries for disposable diapers to decompose in such conditions) and produces greenhouse gases. That way of disposal significantly increases likelihood of water contamination, because pathogens and toxic byproducts of decay can get into subterranean waters.
Some European countries, like Italy, UK and the Netherlands have decided to tackle this issue, opening services and facilities for diaper recycling, but most of the used disposables still end up in landfills.
Cloth diapers vs disposable diapers
This is an ongoing debate, which lasts since the invention of disposable diapers, and it’s not an easy one because of the many variables included in production and use of both. A number of scientific studies have been performed to find the best solution, but some of them were quite biased depending on who was the sponsor of the study.
Production and use of both cloth and disposable diapers consumes various renewable and non-renewable resources, water and energy, and includes various production processes, but even a quick look reveals there is difference in their effect on the environment.
As previously mentioned, production and distribution of disposable diapers consume a lot of oil and wood mass – few hundred billion liters of fossil fuels and one billion trees every year globally. The situation is different when it comes to cloth diapers, as they are made of natural, renewable resources, such as cotton and bamboo. Less than 10 kg of cotton is used for two years of diapering. Hemp is also a very good material for the production of cloth diapers; it is significantly more durable than cotton. Hemp is especially environmentally friendly because it can be grown without the use of irrigation, pesticides or fertilizers. Cloth diaper production and cleaning process also consume oil, but significantly less than disposables. Reusable diapers also don’t contain plastic, which is, as we all know, made by processing crude oil.
Water and Energy
Several studies claim that growing cotton and cleaning required for cloth diapers consume more water than the production process of disposable diapers. That may be true if you look on a per diaper basis, but if we also take into account the scale of the production, it’s a whole different story. Average child will use only 40-50 cloth diapers during its lifetime, while that number is around 7 000 when it comes to disposable diapers. Water consumption of manufacturing fifty cloth diapers compared to seven thousand disposables is significantly lower.
Cotton requires a lot of water during its growth, which makes it problematic regarding sustainable water use. It also consumes significant amounts of herbicides and fertilizers, but there are alternatives to cotton. As mentioned earlier, hemp is quite adaptable and it doesn’t require big quantities of water during growth. It has natural defense mechanisms against insects and diseases so pesticides are not required.
Laundering cloth diapers consists of washing and drying the diaper, which requires a lot of water and energy. It’s estimated that it takes about 85 000 liters of water to wash all the diapers an average child would use in its lifetime. It is important to note that water consumption habits vary among different families and with smart water use it could be significantly reduced. If a diaper laundry service is available, it is best to wash reusable diapers there, as it consumes at least 2,5 times less water than home laundering.
Water used for washing cloth diapers goes to the water treatment plant, where it’s processed along with the rest of waste water. The situation is quite different when it comes to disposing of single-use diapers; you already know the story – they end up in landfills where they cannot decompose for centuries and could potentially contaminate water resources, affecting the health of many people.
When it comes to energy consumption, manufacturing of disposable diapers consumes 6 times more electricity than the production of cloth diapers. If we take into account the electricity used for laundering, energy consumption of cloth diapers is still 20% lower compared to disposables.
Taking everything into account, it is safe to conclude that using cloth diapers instead of disposable ones can significantly reduce waste, the use of toxic chemicals and non-renewable resources.