2019 was the year the world starting introducing single-use plastic bans, which usually targeted plastic bags, straws, plates, cups, stirrers, and food containers, but it was also the year the state of Vanuatu, a small archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, proposed a ban on disposable diapers. The radical proposal, believed to be the world’s first, would therefore encourage parents to find alternatives to single-use diapers, but why are they such a problem?
The history of disposable diapers
Although plastic bags and plastic bottles are a big problem, they are both products that we choose to make single-use, but that in truth could both be reused and refilled multiple times, which is something that could never be done with disposable diapers.
The closest thing to the disposable diapers we know and use today first came around the 1940s, and even then they were a luxury that few people could afford. Before then, mothers would use cloth diapers, animal skins, moss, linens, leaves or nothing at all. Those who did use cloth diapers though, would scarcely wash them, and simply dry them out and then reapply them, this until the early part of the 20th century when people became aware of bacteria and started boiling diapers to sterilize them. The demand on working mothers to continuously boil their babies diapers took such a toll on households, that it was at this time that ‘diaper services’ were born, delivering fresh cotton diapers as needed.
Although there was already an awareness on bacteria and on infections, in the 1940’s the matter of hygiene and the importance of cleanliness in protecting a baby’s skin started to be taken even more seriously. In 1942 a Swedish company started producing a disposable absorbent pad made from unbleached creped cellulose tissue and held in rubber pants. Four years later Marion Donovan, an American housewife came up with a waterproof covering for cloth diapers made with shower curtain plastic and plastic snaps to replace safety pins.
Later on, in the 1950’s Mrs. Hellerman, owner of a diaper service in Milwaukee, approached a Curity diaper company and shared her new invention: a fold that put extra cotton layers in the center of the diaper and that was then sewn shut. This new way of layering diapers resulted in diapers becoming the right size for most babies and was the first preformed, pinless, snap-on diaper.
With new technology and lighter more absorbent fabric diapers continued to improve throughout the decades, becoming the comfortable, thin diapers we know today. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that the first concerns regarding the environmental impact of disposable diapers started to emerge and cloth diapers started making a slow comeback.
Why are disposable diapers such a problem?
Disposable diapers are a huge environmental problem because the vast majority are not recyclable, with 25% of them being made of plastic, diapers have become one of the largest categories of non-biodegradable items in landfill sites both in the U.S. and in Europe. With nearly ever diaper used either ending up in a landfill or being burnt in an incinerator, diapers are a hug source or greenhouse gases as well as contributing to the contamination of the water system (with research showing that diapers are linked to disease on coral reefs)
Studies reveal that by the time an average baby is potty trained, it could have used from 4,000 to 6,000 disposable diapers. With over 300,000 babies born worldwide every day, it’s estimated that people are using and chucking hundreds of billions of diapers every year, with each one estimated to take more than 500 years to degrade. When calculating how many diapers a baby would use if its parents switched to cloth diapers, that mind-blowing number, goes down to a mere 20 to 30 reusable diapers. The quantity numbers don’t lie, as well as the fact that disposable diapers when their cost is multiplied of the years and over every child, don’t come cheap.
So, should all parents go back to cloth diapers? Undoubtedly the rise in sales for reusable diapers has increased dramatically over the last couple of years. The number of diapers being used per child, as previously noted, is visibly less, and although the initial financial investment may seem more when purchasing cloth diapers, it’s a choice that pays off over time. Unfortunately, although in some regards they are better alternatives to single-use diapers, in others they too are not 100% environmentally friendly. Various studies, including one conducted in 2008 by The Environment Agency, estimated that over the two and a half years an average child would wear diapers, disposables would create 550kg (1,200lb) of carbon emissions, while cloth diapers would create 570kg of carbon emissions. The high emissions created by disposable diapers are associated to their production and the materials used to make them, while as the higher emissions created by reusable diapers come from the energy it takes to wash and dry them. Yes, cloth diapers produce more emissions, but those are emissions that parents have control over, meaning that if they changed some habits and followed simple rules such as washing diapers on a full load, using a more efficient setting and hanging them out to dry rather than tumble drying them, would ultimately reduce their overall emissions.
What’s the best choice?
Cloth diapers cost less, last more and can be used for multiple babies. Disposable diapers can’t. Choose reusable diapers and follow the simple guidelines we mentioned earlier to make sure you actively reduce their carbon emissions. If, for some reason you are unable to make the switch to reusable, then read your labels, choose the more eco-friendly option available (please note that biodegradable diapers are not always the better solution), and research how best you can dispose of them once they’ve been used.