The Environmental Hypocrisy of Paper Diapers

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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I believe I do a good job of pointing out my own hypocrisy whenever
I’m railing on about something. I make it very clear that while I really
think I’ve got my “energy” house in order when it comes to heating and
powering my home, I live in the country and drive way more than I
should. I admit my shortcomings but also share how Michelle and I try to
minimize our car trips, use our bikes, invested in a solar-powered
electric bike, etc.

As I read The New York Times on November 28th I
noticed an article called “Living a Green Lifestyle, But Wrestling With
Guilt.” I could certainly relate. My reality of living in the country
and being able to grow my own food and produce all my own heat and
electricity means that I drive more than someone living downtown with
access to transit. But if you live in the city, your food is grown by
someone living in the country and is trucked to your local store. So I
think it kind of cancels each other out.

The article included an interview with the author of “The Lazy Environmentalist: Your Guide to Easy, Stylish, Green Living.” Alarm
bells obviously went off for me. Let’s be honest – if you really want
to be a good environmentalist, it’s going to be pretty tough to be
stylish in your second-hand store clothing. And I don’t think anyone
would suggest that riding your bike 40 miles to visit your Grandma could
be considered as “easy”.  By the time you get to your destination,
after riding your environmentally friendly bicycle, you’re going to be
all hot and sweaty with bad hair. The last time I checked a fashion
magazine this look wasn’t considered “stylish.” But really, this is the
stuff you’ve got to do. To describe it otherwise is false advertising.

In the article the writer got the author to admit that he and his
wife tried using cloth diapers for their 5-month-old baby and he said,
“We tried cloth and think it’s totally unrealistic.” Huh? Have you read
the title of your book recently? I’ve got news for you, up until about
the last 30 years there was no alternative to cloth diapers. Pretty
amazing that civilization was able to survive all that time without
them. In fact disposable diapers are the poster child for what’s wrong
with the planet. And what is that? What’s wrong with disposable diapers?
EVERYTHING! Amazingly enough, the writer of the article was able to
find a number of other “environmentalists” who use disposable diapers.

So let’s try and get our heads around this. We head out into the
forest and we put gas in our chainsaw and we cut down live, beautiful,
carbon-absorbing trees. Then we use massive diesel-sucking,
pollution-belching tractors to haul those trees out of the forest, and
put them on huge diesel trucks and ship them to huge energy-inhaling
factories that turn those trees into pulp. Then we package and ship that
pulp to another factory hours or days away in another diesel-belching
truck, then use massive amounts of energy to turn that pulp into
diapers. And since no one wants a leaky diaper we then wrap those
diapers in plastic liners. And where does that plastic come from? …
Anyone, anyone?… Yes – oil. Did you watch TV last year? Did you see the
Macondo oil well blow out in the Gulf of Mexico? And you say cloth
diapers are unrealistic?

Don’t forget all those wonderful “moisture absorbing” chemicals like
sodium polyacrylate that we put into those diapers so they that can
retain more liquid. And since they don’t leak we tend to leave them on
our babies for way longer than their tender behinds should be exposed to
that stuff.

Finally, we use massive garbage trucks to ship those single use
diapers to a landfill. And in most jurisdictions it is illegal to put
human waste in a landfill, so when you toss that disposable diaper in a
landfill, you’re breaking the law. I’m sure the packaging today says the
diapers are “biodegradable,” but they won’t biodegrade if they end up
compacted in a landfill where no oxygen can get to them. I guess that’s
why I see so many tossed on the sides of roads when I ride my bike – I
guess the parent is doing the responsible thing and hoping they’ll
biodegrade. In all my years I’ve never seen a cloth diaper tossed in a
ditch. And in my home province of Ontario we’ve filled up 650 out of 730
landfills, so we only have 80 left. Disposable diapers are a major
problem in landfills.

The disposable diaper advocates will no doubt point to the water that
is used to wash cloth diapers. Yes, what about it? You think using a
laundry tub full of water has a bigger impact than the carbon footprint
of paper diapers? Come on. And when you rinse out a cloth diaper the
human waste goes into a sanitary sewer system to be treated with other
human waste, where it’s supposed to go!

It’s like the debate over washing dishes by hand versus using a
dishwasher. Using a dishwasher uses more energy than doing them by hand.
I put a couple of inches of hot water in the bottom of our dish pan,
start with glasses and as I rinse the glasses the pan fills up, and by
the time I’m done I’ve used one pan of water. And the hot water I use? I
heated it on the wood stove or with my solar domestic hot water heater.
Zero-carbon dishwashing. When I hear dishwashers working away at other
people’s houses and think about the electricity they’re sucking up to
blast all the water around and how hot the water has to be to melt off
3-day-old macaroni and cheese, it’s crazy. And yet some appliance
manufacturer in Europe commissioned a study decades ago and was able to
skew the data toward automatic dishwashers and this has been the
public’s mindset ever since. It’s a myth as is any argument that says
paper diapers can possibly be anything but an environmental nightmare.

When our first daughter was born almost 25 years ago we bought 2
dozen flat cloth diapers. We then used the same 24 cloth diapers for our
second daughter a few years later. After we were finished using them as
diapers they became the best rags I’ve ever used. I still have a couple
left 25 years later. Seems like a pretty low impact piece of cloth to
me. And as you can see by the photo our diapers were square and you had
to pin them on and use a rubber pant over top of them. Today you can get
wonderfully colourful organic cotton diapers that are all nicely cut
and shaped to fit your baby and you don’t have to use diaper pins

have no doubt that I’ll have offended some of my readers with my rant
about dishwashers and disposable diapers. But really, we can’t find a
solution to our environmental problems if we keep kidding ourselves that
some of the most destructive things we do like flying and using single
use products like paper diapers is anything but bad for the planet.
We’ve got to suck it up and start rinsing those poopy diapers in the
toilet and dealing with them the proper way. To do it any other way is
to deny that child their right to an inhabitable planet when they grow

* * * * * * *

Here’s one example of the new fitted cloth diapers available. This company was started by one of our daughters’ friends. There are plenty of choices out there and I’ve even seen fitted cloth diapers for sale in secondhand stores!

Photo by Cam Mather.

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