Guest Commentary

Should parents accept the consequences of the convenience of disposable diapers?

Today's parents face a dilemma: cloth or disposable?

Environmentalists say disposable diapers are bad for the environment but those who buy them say convenience outweighs that factor, and that a baby has to be in diapers only for a relatively short time.

Cloth diapers first appeared in the 1800s. Today's disposables originated in the 1960s with Procter & Gamble's Pampers—a diaper made of cellulose.

The Real Diaper Association estimates it can take 200 to 500 years for disposable diapers to decompose in landfills. The association estimates that 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used each year in the United States, and more than 92 percent of them end up in landfills.

Cristina Polsgrove, a spokeswoman for Tucson's Environmental Services department, says the city "does not keep statistics on tonnages of diapers," but that "diapers and diaper waste in them does not contaminate the groundwater." She said the city's landfill, Los Reales, is "designed and operated in compliance with federal regulations to protect the environment from contaminants which may be present in the solid waste stream."

Let's take a closer look at the conflict parents face in choosing cloth or disposable diapers:

•To produce a year's supply of disposable diapers for one baby, more than 300 pounds of wood, 20 pounds of chlorine and 50 pounds of petroleum products are used, according to the Real Diaper Association. Disposable diapers also contain traces of dioxin, a toxic byproduct from the paper-bleaching process. The Environmental Protection Agency considers dioxin one of the most toxic of all carcinogens, and it is banned in most countries, according to the association.

• Disposable diapers also contain sodium polyacrylate, a superabsorbent polymer that turns into a gel-like substance when wet, the association says. It is similar to the substance that increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome in the 1980s.

• Another harmful chemical contained in disposables is tributyltin, a toxic pollutant linked to hormonal problems in humans and animals, the association says.

Cloth diapers, however, "have no chemicals in them (and) can be reused or even sold after the baby is grown," said Charlottes Lasselsberger, owner of the Little Bird Nesting Company, 2924 E. Broadway Blvd.

"Cloth diapers use one-half the amount of water to launder than it does to manufacture disposable ones," Lasselsberger said, adding that they also put fecal matter where it belongs, in the sewer. "Cloth diapering saves money, babies have a soft fabric next to their skin and mothers avoid trips to the market," she said.

Cloth diapers are also easier to use these days because instead of pins, they are fastened with snaps and Velcro, said Tonya Scott, whose online company sells them. Scott said she decided to put her three boys in cloth diapers after seeing an ABC TV report that said disposables may cause infertility because of the higher temperatures from the plastic in the diapers.

Parent Lori Hammed-Dow, 36, says it was convenience that made her decide on disposables. After potty-training her 2 1/2-year-old and dealing with "accidents," she said she cannot imagine using cloth diapers.

However, Carrie L. Beauto, the mother of children 3 1/2 years old and 19 months old, finds cloth diapers better for babies and the environment, and says she has saved money through the ability to reuse them.  

Erin Vaughn, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona student who has a 2-year-old, says she decided on cloth diapers for a variety of reasons, including less space taken up in landfills and reductions in petrochemical and electricity use, especially when parents dry the cloth diapers on a clothesline.

Consider the facts, then decide: a better environment or more convenience?

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