This week's Raising A Green Fledgling installment focuses on green diapering. It can be a messy topic but no worries, we'll keep it nice and clean. Which takes me to the title of this week's post. Why "fried green diapers"? It's simple really, but you'll have to read on to find out why.
Cloth/reusable diapers seem to be enjoying a resurgence after years of high consumer demand for convenient, disposable diapers. I think this resurgence makes sense both environmentally and practically, but it's worth exploring some other perspectives on this, especially since there can be substantial up-front costs for cloth/reusable diapers.
A 2009 research review called Diapers and the Environment, from the Massachusetts-based group NEARTA, compared disposable and reusable diapers in four areas: solid waste, non-renewable resources consumption, airborne/water-borne wastes, and water consumption. The authors' showed that reusable diapers had fewer negative environmental impacts than disposables in the first three areas, while there was no advantage for either type of diaper with respect to water consumption.
Alternatively, the UK Environment Agency showed that reusables can be better or worse than disposables in terms of their negative environmental impacts. In a 2006 study, An Updated Lifecycle Assessment Study for Disposable and Reusable Nappies (Aumônier et al), the Agency concluded that "consumers' behaviour" largely determined the negative environmental impact of reusables over time. Translation: the impacts of reusables vary based on how you wash, dry and hand them down over time, not to mention the appliances you use and the electricity and water you use to rinse, wash and dry them (and where the electricity and water come from). Other life cycle assessments of disposables and cloth/reusables have failed to find a clear front-runner, as well.
Fair enough. Reusable diapers do require a lot of rinsing, washing and drying, multiple times per week. And rinsing a reusable can consume more water once baby is on solid food. Hot water washing (w/ cold rinsing) is also recommended to remove stains from reusables. Finally, you shouldn't mix regular laundry with reusables because they require less detergent and detergent that is less harsh and free of synthetic chemicals (see RAGF Part 2). Detergent residues left after washing can decrease the absorbency of reusables and may lead to skin irritation.
But I was perplexed that life cycle assessments would fail to name reusables the clear winner. I mean, disposables generate so much MORE persistent, non-degradable waste than reusables, right? And disposables may take up to 500 years to decompose and break-down into tiny bits of plastic that persist in the environment. Most disposables also contain super absorbent polymer (SAPs) compounds that solidify to gel once 'activated', adding additional chemical waste to the mix.
Reusables range from being 100% composed of natural fibres to being a clever mix of natural and synthetic fibres. They're typically designed with an outer cover and an absorbent insert, both of which are washable. While the synthetic components of reusable diapers have life cycle impacts similar to those of their disposable counterparts, reusables produce far less waste at the end of product life and can be re-used by multiple babies over time in a family. Try that with a disposable.
My wife and I considered the waste our reusables might generate if we tossed them out with this week's trash (assuming we were bonkers). We estimated the waste at less than one regular-sized garbage bag, and that's based upon one-size-fits-all reusables that will last us at least until our daughter's first birthday. Plus we can re-use them with future children. Using some of the estimates presented in the research above, a typical baby goes through 70 to 80 disposables per week. That's easily enough to fill 52 regular-sized garbage bags in that same one-year period. One garbage bag compared to 52 for the same period amounts to a lot more impact from disposables in my mind. A 2004 World Health Organization study said that disposable diapers are the "third largest individual constituent of municipal solid waste" making up "over 4%" of the total amount.
So notwithstanding water consumption, I don't buy the conclusion that disposables and reusables have equal environmental impacts. But that's just my opinion, and you know my bias. I also can't get beyond the fact that disposable diapers effectively 'lock-up' biodegradable human waste for hundreds of years, while reusables often liberate that waste into sewerage systems where it can be treated and/or biodegraded more readily.
I haven't talked about the difference in cost between disposables and reusables, but it's enough to say that reusables have a greater up-front cost. However, this cost is usually amortized, or spread-out, over the baby's entire diaper-wearing life. And the diaper-wearing lives of its younger siblings. Disposable diapers cost less per unit in the beginning but become more expensive as baby grows, and they have to be newly purchased newly when they run out. NEARTA conducted another research review, Diaper Cost Comparison, which reported these conclusions. The review also points out the costs associated with water and electricity consumption for laundering reusables, including the cost of using a cloth/reusable diaper cleaning service. This is certainly not insignificant in every case.
As for our experience with reusable diapers so far: they're wonderful. We're happy about the reduced waste associated with reusables, which allows us to feel like responsible environmental stewards. On the practical side, we're very impressed with how well reusables work and how little odor they have when soiled. Our daughter seems to love them, too. They're not messy and rarely leak if fitted and fastened properly, plus many of the new outer cover materials prevent external soaking. We use a non-airtight diaper pail lined with a washable diaper bag to store soiled diapers, and control occasional odors between washes by using drops of tea-tree oil in the bag. We also use washable cloth wipes with an all-natural diaper wipe spray, and we found great all-natural, biodegradable bamboo baby wipes to use as an alternative when not at home.
There's one other huge benefit to cloth/reusable diapers: they motivate toddlers to potty-train earlier since there are no super absorbent polymers and moisture-wicking membranes to make baby feel dry even though he/she's not. Yes, you have to pay more attention to the state of baby's diaper this way, but it's worth it in the longer-term I think.
Oh yeah, what about the title of this week's post? Well, fried green diapers refers to a trick that comes in handy with reusables. Normal washing and drying often won't remove all stains from reusable diapers, but the sun does a remarkable job of naturally bleaching them. So whenever possible, we line-dry our diapers to make sure they stay looking as good as new. I think "fried green diapers" nicely describes this process, since the sun 'fries' our 'green' diapers. :-)
Disclaimer: This is by no means a comprehensive look at the benefits and pitfalls of cloth/reusable diapering. There are numerous maternity stores, baby shops, boutiques and other retailers that can help you navigate the world of cloth/reusable diapers and I encourage you to seek the advice of their experienced staff. A simple Google search will help you find a retailer or cloth/reusable diapering blog or forum in your region.
Photos: A. MacDonald