The dirt on diapers.

Disclaimer: I had some trepidation about writing this post because I have a feeling it might get a lot of, “Joanna. You don’t have kids! Why are you giving parenting advice?!” comments. It is true. I don’t have kids (only two extremely adorable, sweet, amazing, cuddly, rambunctious fur babies).

But don’t worry. This post is not parenting advice! It’s just some (or maybe too much) information to consider about how modern child rearing might affect (or maybe destroy??) your child’s future.

These are my fur babies, in case you needed a visual, before we get to the actual post.

Now on to the post and all of this information that you can’t live without….

These days, many of my millennial friends are having children and it has been awesome watching them turn into warm, loving parents to The. Most. Adorable. Babies. 

But… As I think about these precious babies’ futures, it occurs to me that we’re simply kicking the (trash) can down the road. These precious kids (when they turn into precious adults) will be stuck with the job of cleaning up the disastrous environmental and health effects of OUR easy and convenient disposable lifestyle. 

Parents, YOU truly have the most to gain by incorporating zero waste and low waste lifestyle options into your and your children’s daily lives. (And since I don’t have kids, I’m relying on you and your progeny to make sure our planet hasn’t completely imploded by the time I’m 80 years old.)

Hear me out.

Look at any picture of a newborn right after delivery and you’ll notice that they all have something in common… Every baby is wrapped up in a disposable plastic diaper (something to the likes of Specimen A below) the moment they enter this world. Why?

Specimen A. The modern disposable diaper splayed out in all it’s grandeur on a kitchen counter.
Photo credit-A.B.

For obvious reasons! Since the 1950’s disposable diapers have been saving parents time and eliminating the need for dealing with the ick factor of poop and pee for more than a few seconds. Or have they?

You might be surprised to learn what these disposable diapers have really been up to in the past couple of decades.

Disposable plastic diapers are poisoning babies and children.

I know. It’s horrible to accuse something as innocent (and helpful) as a disposable diaper of something so awful! But let me ask you, do you know what diapers are made of? (I’ll give you a moment to go look on the box if you have one.) Hmmm… Interesting… Ingredients not listed… Since diapers aren’t regulated by the FDA, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose this information.

But if you do some good ol’ internet digging for independent research studies, you’ll find this deeply hidden information. Modern diapers are made up of several layers that include difficult to pronounce materials such as polyethylene and superabsorbent polymers (aka plastics).

The plastics in disposable diapers contain even more difficult to pronounce chemicals such as dioxins (carcinogenic compounds), phthalates (plastic softeners which are endocrine disruptors), heavy metals, VOCs (the chemicals found in paint), and many other toxic compounds. (I know, it’s a complete repeat of my Period Products Post.) Just the kind of stuff you want floating around your baby, right?

Here’s the scary part. While wearing diapers, babies and toddlers absorb all of this stuff through their skin. And most babies and toddlers wear diapers 24/7, so they are absorbing chemicals all day and all night long. (Kind of like letting your kid breathe car exhaust 24/7, except that would get you in trouble with the authorities, meanwhile with diapers, no one will raise an eyebrow.)

You can guess what I’m getting at here. The chemicals in the diapers can make children and people really sick, ya’ll.

I know some of you will say, “My baby wore disposable plastic diapers for years. Now she’s all grown up and off to college and about to change the world. Clearly, your rant about diapers and toxicity is nonsense.”

It’s true–babies don’t get sick the moment you put a diaper on them. Over time though, the concentration of these chemicals builds up in the cells. Since we can’t physically see this buildup happening, we don’t think about it.

But eventually, combined with build up from other chemical exposures the children will have over their lifetime (think cleaning products, pesticides, lotions, basically everything we are manufacturing these days short of coconut oil), a chemical load large enough to cause cancer, respiratory illnesses, or other horrid health effects builds up in their cells.

These health effects might become obvious when the child is 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, or 90. It varies depending on a lot of other factors.

(In case you think I’m making this up, here are some more reputable sources such as the University of California, that describe the buildup of toxic chemicals in our cells from everything we encounter in our daily lives.)

But these days, we really don’t have to wait that long to see the health effects of toxic chemicals on our children. Childhood cancer is up 27% since 1975 in children under 19 years old.

True, correlation does not equal causation. It *could* just be pure chance that for some unknown super mysterious reason children are getting more cancer now. Or it could be all of the chemicals they are getting exposed to, starting with the disposable diapers.

(Actually, they’re getting exposed to stuff even before they are born and diapered. Have you read about the thalidomide babies? Don’t worry–you can TOTALLY trust the manufacturers to warn you about all of the side effects of their products.)

Yes, the disposable diaper companies claim their products are safe. Consider though, that they’re also the ones trying to sell this stuff and make money off of it. So really, what reason do they have for making sure you know their products include all of the above listed extras (especially if customers aren’t dropping dead the second they use their products, but rather years later)? As you can tell, I have a bone to pick with Pampers, Huggies, etc.

Also, a fun fact on health effects: Diaper rash wasn’t even a thing before the 1940’s, when rubber and plastic pants were introduced. That says a lot…

If poisoning children was all these disposable plastic diapers were doing, I could maybe forgive them. But it doesn’t stop there. They’re also poisoning my other true love–the environment.

Disposable diapers are poisoning the environment.

A baby will go through 2,500-3,000 diapers. JUST in the first year. These diapers, and all their lovely contents, will end up in landfills.

The poop and pee in the diapers will produce green house gases such as methane, further heating up our planet. The diapers, since they are made of plastic and all the chemicals listed above, will not degrade.

Small Foot Print Family sums it up best:

If Christopher Columbus had worn Pampers, his poop would still be intact in some landfill today.

Now this could potentially be a good thing. Let’s say your kid ends up being a Nobel Prize winner or a famous rapper. If you’re ever strapped for cash, you could track down their used diapers in a landfill, still intact 30 or 40 years later. Then you can sell them on eBay for millions of dollars (because there are always people out there willing to pay a ton of money for useless but memorable stuff like that).

But realistically, even you, the parent who loves everything about this precious child, doesn’t wan’t to keep your child’s used diapers to fawn over 10 or 20 years later. So why preserve them in a landfill for future generations?

In the landfill, your baby’s used diapers will outlive your child, your grandchildren, your great grand children, and possibly other future generations. There is no such thing as “throwing it away” because disposable diapers don’t degrade.

Fun fact: Disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills

Here’s another fun fact. As the Earth’s population grows and we run out of land, closed landfills are now being viewed not just as closed landfills, but as prime real estate for developments and master planned communities.

There is a chance that your child might one day live on top of a landfill that contains his/her intact diapers! How cool is that? It only sounds cool in theory, because in reality, there are so many health risks associated with living on or near a landfill. You can read more about that here.

BTW, supposedly, instructions on a disposable diaper package say that all fecal matter should be deposited in the toilet before discarding. Yet, less than one half of one percent of all waste from single-use diapers goes into the sewage system. I have never seen a parent scrape a diaper to deposit it’s content in a toilet.

Finally, disposable diapers have been wreaking havoc on family finances.

Everyone will tell you, “Having kids is expensive! Something like $200,000 between ages 0-18 and let’s not even talk about college!”

Parents usually just accept that disposable diapers will be a part of these expenses. It’s what we are taught we’re supposed to do as parents–diaper up the baby in disposables!

Sure, it doesn’t sound like much at first–just 20 cents per diaper. But do you know how many diapers a baby goes through a day?? Six to eight diapers or six to ten diapers if your child has a really active digestive system!

For you math folks, here is the hardcore financial data:

$0.20 cost of diaper X 10 diapers a day X 365 days a year=$730

Over two years, that can add up to about $1,400-$3,000 (on the higher end if you use other diaper associated products such as powder and if you use more expensive diaper brands).

Because the diapers are disposable, you always need more new diapers! That’s $1,400-$3,000 that you kissed goodbye and sent to a landfill, never to be used again.

Not only are parents paying to purchase diapers though, parents also pay to get rid of them. (How much does your trash service cost monthly?)

But it doesn’t have to be this way! You can still create offspring without totally destroying the earth, going completely broke, or poisoning your child in the process.

There are other diaper options that I found.

These options address some of these health, environmental, and financial challenges of disposable plastic diapers (but of course, some have their own issues and challenges).

Bring back the cloth diaper!

Cloth diapers are what I was diapered in (or so I’m told, because I don’t have much recollection) because throw away diapers weren’t a thing in Communist Europe in the 80’s. There is an organic option for cloth diapers, which should take care of the scary toxicity issues I mentioned with regular disposable diapers.

If you want to be extra safe though, you can buy used (but hopefully well laundered) cloth diapers from another parent. This will virtually guarantee that if there was anything toxic on there, it has off gassed by the time you put it on your child. (Yes, that does mean someone else’s child was sacrificed and absorbed all the toxins for you.)

The best news is that since cloth diapers are re-usable, they won’t end up in the landfill like disposables! Hurray! (Unless you inconsiderately throw them away once your kiddo grows out of them. Though I’m not sure why you would do that, if you can sell them instead to another family.) They can even be recycled into cloth rags!

Fun fact about cloth diapers–children who wear cloth diapers potty train one year earlier than children who wear disposable diapers! If that’s not a great incentive to use cloth diapers, I don’t know what is. Unlike disposables, natural cotton cloth diapers feel wet to your baby…so they will naturally want to potty train early.

So what’s the cost associated with these amazing non-toxic diapers? Cloth diapers and their accessories run about $800 to $1,000 for the first year. (If you wash them yourself. If you get a fancy laundering service for diapers, the cost will be more. It might not be worth it if you are doing cloth for costs savings, but costs vary depending on where you live, so Google first and make decisions later.)

Here’s a link to a Central Texas diaper service that seems to have reasonable rates.

With cloth diapers, for the second year, you already have the diapers, so you won’t need to spend more $$$. How awesome?!

Here is something even more awesome. Cloth diapers can be free if you’re clever about it!

Mister Money Moustache (who is the wisest person I know, so you should take ALL of his advice) suggests you purchase gently used cloth diapers at a discount, use them for two years, and then sell them to another family. If you sell them for the same amount that you bought them, you won’t be out a single cent on diapers, let alone $2,000-$3,000 dollars.

And as I like to suggest, take the money you save on disposables and invest it. College savings, anyone? (Especially considering that by the time today’s toddlers go to college, college will probably cost $250,000 a semester.)

Yes, I know, these cloth diapers do require laundering. They will use up detergent, water, and electricity, which all cost money. And they’ll require some sweat equity to scrape the poop off the diaper into the toilet, bring the diaper to the washing machine, put it on a line to dry (you didn’t think I’d suggest putting it in the drying machine, did you?), and re-use. Sounds like a lot of work… But we all have to do laundry at some point, so this might be just one extra load.

Also, you can make detergent out of baking soda, which will probably cost about a dollar (and be less toxic than store bought laundry detergent). And rainwater and solar panels anyone?

You can even do laundry using a human-powered laundry machine if you want to be frugal with your electricity. Workout and laundry, all in one!

Just think of your child’s future and the other future generations!

Realistically though, here is one family’s cost analysis of cloth vs. disposable diapers.

And here is a picture to sum up a thousand words…..

Cloth versus disposable diapers.
This is just for the first year. (The average age for potty training is around 27 months and some parents wait even longer.) 
Photo credit: Small Footprint Family. (You can tell I really love and admire this family, right?)

Personally, being a zero waste advocate, I would stop the post right there.

However, I realize that not all parents will take to the idea of cloth diapering their child. So, I don’t want you think that cloth or plastic disposables are your only two options.

Alas, there is a third option!

Compostable Disposable Diapers

There seem to be a few options for compostable disposable diapers.

Yes, these are throw away diapers (an aspect I’m not a fan of), BUT, they are compostable. That means, if disposed of properly in a composting facility, (as discussed in my previous blog post), these diapers won’t end up in a landfill, reducing the negative environmental impact.

If you do choose to throw them in the regular trash, even though they’re compostable, they’ll be sitting there for hundreds of years right next to all of the plastic disposable diapers. No bueno.

If you send them to a composting facility, though, they’ll get turned into fertilizer for your vegetable garden. Yum! Don’t you just love the cycle of life?

These diapers seem to be made out of things like bamboo and hemp. (I assume if they are compostable they should be made from more natural and less toxic ingredients.)

Here are some plant-based diapers to check out.

Honestly, even though I’m not into throwing things away, these plant-based diapers are kind of impressive. Did you know the following about bamboo diapers?

  • Bamboo fiber is breathable, naturally antibacterial, antimicrobial, and odor-resistant.
  • As far as absorbency, bamboo rocks! (Bamboo is about 60% more absorbent than cotton!)
  • Given its fast growth rate and requiring no pesticides and little water to grow, bamboo makes for a sustainable crop

Pretty cool, isn’t it? Really makes me want to plant some bamboo in my yard.

Cost wise, plant compostable diapers might not be accessible to everyone. I found some on Amazon that cost $0.45 per diaper, so twice the cost of plastic disposables. However, they do offer a lot of benefits if you can afford them.

Note: When/if searching for bamboo diapers, be alert! There seems to be a company called Bambo making diapers. It totally sounds like bamboo and comes up on all the “Bamboo diaper” Google searches, but as far as I can tell, these diapers have nothing to do with actually being made from bamboo. Impostors! They do say they are toxic chemical free and made from sustainable forest wood, though.

Final thoughts….

As I mentioned previously, I don’t have children, so none of this is first hand experience. (And there doesn’t seem to be as much concern when it comes to dog diapers. Hmm… Maybe a business opportunity there…)

Not to get too historical here, but our human ancestors supposedly appeared on this planet seven to five million years ago. For about five to seven million years, people have been having babies…. Plastic disposable diapers have only been around since the 1950’s. So for five to seven million years, people have been having babies and raising children without disposable plastic diapers. A strong indicator that it is possible?

I realize, today, there is a lot families have to consider when choosing how to deal with their children’s poop and pee. Every family has it’s unique situation with regards to work schedules, daycare, etc. For many families, a blend of cloth and disposable might be the best option. But even a blend can make a huge positive impact with regards to your child’s and the environment’s health.

The most important thing is to be informed when making your choices and to not only think of the here and now, but to consider how your choices will affect your child’s future.

I’d love to hear more about your experiences with cloth diapers, compostable diapers, and plant-based diapers. If there is any information that should be here that isn’t, please let me know and I’d love to update this blog post.

Happy Zero Wasting!

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