NPR logo Alison Checks In: The Diaper Dilemma

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Alison Checks In: The Diaper Dilemma


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In an effort not to add more plastic to landfills — to shrink our "carbon buttprint," if you will — I have tried many different eco-diapers in the past 10 weeks. I have also experienced wet onesies, biblical blowouts and one incident so bad that a T-shirt of mine will never be worn again.

I tried the award-winning Swedish nappies that claimed to be "100% natural-based back sheet, 100% natural distribution layer, 100% compostable consumer packaging." I found them about 100% likely to lead to an unfortunate surprise. I tried the "no gel" that I had to change about every 45 minutes — and frankly, they were enormous. I mean, Isaac looked like something was wrong with him when he wore them.

Of the five eco-friendly brands I've tried, Ike has managed to lay waste to them all. Pardon the pun.

As with many things in life, I arrived at a compromise. During the week, I opted for an environmentally friendly diaper that doesn't promise to create clean fuel or patch the ozone. The company doesn't use chlorine — unlike mainstream brands and cloth services. These diapers aren't pretty, but they use a minimal amount of plastic. On the weekends, I have started to incorporate the hybrid diaper we discussed on the show — it means more work and more changes, so it's better for less hectic days.

Did you ever have great plans to be a crusader for a cause, only to have reality overwhelm your good intentions?



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We tried the eco-diaper route for our daughter as well but were unsatisfied with the options. The best we could come up with was using BioBags to dispose of the diapers rather than normal plastic bags. Granted, even though the BioBags will disentegrate, that still leaves the diaper behind for the next 30 or so generations to enjoy in their landfills.... :-(

Sent by andy carvin, npr | 10:45 AM | 7-17-2008

My biracial pride is all astir. Beautiful baby. A bit of joy at such a bleak time for the show.

Sent by Steve Thompson | 10:47 AM | 7-17-2008

Yes. Diapers were a huge issue for us. But diaper rash also played a part. We went w/cloth that I washed at home. Old school rinse off in the toilet, soak in bucket until enough to load into washer, etc. That was with a soft plasic/cloth cover which closed w/velcro. Totally fine until my kids chose NOT to crawl. No, they scooted on their butts kind of sideways dragging themselves w/their arms. The cloth diaper would sometimes work itself out the leg of the cover, and that wasn't pleasant. So gradual switch to disposable, more money spent, guilt ensued. Until bedwetting. Then I didn't care and bought Pull-Ups w/abandon until we got through that period. So, yes, I feel your guilty pain.

Sent by T. Weiss | 10:48 AM | 7-17-2008

I actually tried to rationalize using high-test environmentally devastating diapers like Pampers and Huggies by reminding anyone who would listen that I didn't even learn how to drive until I was 23 and have clocked a lot fewer miles behind the wheel than your average American.

It didn't really make me feel any better.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 10:52 AM | 7-17-2008

I'd love to drive a nice new hybrid, but my parents gave me their old SUV. So, reality did kick in there and I drive it. I only drive about 2500 miles a year in it, so I'm not driving the typical 12000 miles or so, but for me, the reality was, do I want to spend a fortune for a new car (that has to be manufactured and create waste) or use something that was given to me for free? I choose free.

Sent by Tom Grant | 10:58 AM | 7-17-2008

Nothing like a big biblical blow out to make you nervouse. My oldest son blew his diaper out on his Grandfathers knee still a subject of discussion 8 years later. Just remember UDS united dooky service delivering in bulk packages. And if you thinkg your lonly now wait untill some solid food.

Sent by neal neals | 11:06 AM | 7-17-2008

Our compromise has been cloth diapers during the first year when all that gets pooped and peed is derivates of mother's milk (and a lot more frequent diaper changes). We don't have problems running a couple of extra cycles in the washing machine with bleach. Then when real foods start, we cry uncle and switch to disposable.

Sent by Anthony Hunt | 11:36 AM | 7-17-2008


No kids or diapers for me... yet.

I do care about my weight and health. So, about two years ago I started taking a smoothie I made to work for breakfast and raw spinach, carrots, and tomatoes for lunch.

All this food is good for me, but it is not filling. Thus, I'm always hungry at work and sabotage my good intentions by buying junk food to munch on. I'm eating a cherry Pop Tart as I type.

All of this junk food nullifies the good food that I eat.

Sent by Steve Petersen | 12:03 PM | 7-17-2008

I separate + recycle my plastics and paper, but as diapers go I do not mess around: Huggies rule.

Sent by Andie H Lise | 12:12 PM | 7-17-2008

@Alison: "Did you ever have great plans to be a crusader for a cause, only to have reality overwhelm your good intentions?"

So many times. I bought a reel lawnmower only to have the handle break just past the warranty period. My Lashout electric bicycle was a horror show from day one. The controller fried two miles into my first trip. Because the controller is epoxied onto the motor for reasons that still confound me repair was not trivial. (The Bionx, conversely, has been a dream since day one.) My first attempt at composting just made for a five foot fire ant colony. I couldn't get near it.

With respect to diapers, a couple of my friends have tried going without after the first a month or so. No diapers, no pants, no anything. Having slimy stuff on your legs is no fun and the kids learn about toilets really fast. The children were toilet trained after 6 months and 8 months respectively. If I remember correctly this is par for the course in Chinese culture.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 12:24 PM | 7-17-2008

With our first baby we used cloth diapers and a diaper service. Once he was down to just a few diapers a day, we couldn't justify the expense and switched to disposables. Now we have another baby and still use disposables because they're more convenient.

To put it into perspective, a few thousand disposable diapers in the landfill are just a small part of environmental impact that your kids will have. Think of all the food they'll eat, clothes they'll wear, miles they'll put on your car, etc.

On the plus side, it's possible that your children (and their children), given the right upbringing and education, will have a net benefit on the environment of the course of their lives.

Sent by Edward Noodleson | 2:01 PM | 7-17-2008

I know that I am the unofficial bear-poking troglodyte of the BPP blog, but nonetheless, I am sympathetic to the problem. My wife and I discussed using some more environmentally friendly ways of regiftting our son's bundles of undigested goodness, and we came to the sad conclusion that it just wasn't feasible.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Our son, taking after his father, is a healthy eater. Before he started on solids, I could only recognize him from the back of his head. The amount of diapers we would wash would be far more than we could handle. Besides which, we live in a desert climate, and increased water usage has its own environmental problem.

There's also the lack of green diaper's local availability. Home delivery to our house burns more fuel, in the long run, than walking down to the Target down the street from us to get Huggies.

There is also a sociological aspect. My wife's Kenyan heritage teaches never to turn down gifts or to regift those gifts, no matter how many duplicates we get. When fellow Kenyans give us disposeable diapers as gifts, we can't exactly say, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Finally, there have some positives about disposeable diapers. The diapers sold today have much less material than those I grew up with. That makes for a smaller footprint --or maybe booty-print-- in landfills.

I've also come to believe that diapers have been scapegoated for the bigger problem of effective waste management. The number I heard recently is 2% of landfill space is disposeable diapers. While that's still a lot of space, there are still 98% of the landfill space which is not disposeable diapers.

Environmental awareness, IMHO, doesn't mean living like the Unibomber. Some things are easy to do and are a sign of good manners (e.g. turning off the room light when you leave). Others are more difficult but still workable, like economizing your trips by car or biking to work. Others still require a change in your way of life but can still be managed without the accompanying insanity, like living in a smaller space which using less energy. But, finally, there are others where I will not go --if someone starts enforcing a "One Child" rule in this country, it's Kenya, one way.

Environmentalism, I believe, is not about following a laundry list --no pun intended-- of items to show others how green you are. It's an awareness of your effect on your surroundings, emiliorating the costs and increasing the benefits. It also shouldn't be about guilt; it should be about humility, doing what you can do and admitting what you can't.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 2:35 PM | 7-17-2008

Somebody else is comparing diapers, but not from a usability standpoint...

"Pampers vs. Huggies - 40+ Year Old Branding War Hits Search Marketing"

Sent by Steve Petersen | 2:51 PM | 7-17-2008

We save our plastic bags and take them back to the grocery store to be recycled. I was pretty bummed when I realized (very belatedly) that I'm using and throwing away at least as many plastic bags as I recycle by using small trashcan bags when I scoop my cats' litter boxes. I did think that I could buy paper lunch bags and use those but I'm still left with 10 rolls of plastic bags...

Sent by Sarah Lee | 3:47 PM | 7-17-2008

Cloth diapers and a diaper service worked for us. The service (Dydee) is very environmentally friendly up to and including their delivery trucks. Not as convenient, but not too many major blow outs. We did have some disposables on hand just in case, but it was mostly cloth for the first 1 1/2 years.

Sent by Jim Trenton | 4:24 PM | 7-17-2008

I've been having the same dilemma myself, but am only at the contemplation stage since my kid is just an embryo. I keep reading about the G's, but this is the first time I've read about their actual use. I can see how the swish and flush might be a bit time consuming. Since I'm here in VT with a yard and the ability to compost the wet ones, I'm thinking that would be a good way to go. Then again - I might do it for a week, get annoyed and run screaming to Costco for a giant package of disposables!

Sent by Ali in VT | 5:03 PM | 7-17-2008

@Edward Noodleson: "To put it into perspective, a few thousand disposable diapers in the landfill are just a small part of environmental impact that your kids will have."

This style of reasoning drives me beyond distraction. Using worse impacts to rationalize bad impacts is nothing more than a race to the bottom. Yes it is important to keep a sense of perspective. The chances are how you get around will have a larger influence on the planet than whether you compost your kitchen scraps or not. Then again, just because you drive a Hummer doesn't mean you shouldn't consider a compost pile. Everything helps.

"Think of all the food they'll eat, clothes they'll wear, miles they'll put on your car, etc."

I'd place a large bet that most children born this year won't be doing much driving in their lives. My generation seems to enjoy denial, but most of our children just won't be able to afford any sort of car.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 5:59 PM | 7-17-2008

As a childless, unmarried thirty something year old guy, I have an unusual take on the diaper dilemma. You never read about cloth adult diapers verses disposable adult diapers, although the debates in spinal injury message boards and are just as passionate as any parenting blog.

As a quadriplegic I need to wear diapers and cost, comfort, effective leak containment and the environment are all important issues for me.

Neurological damage has left me with limited dexterity or strength in my arms. I have no feeling in my hands, arms, feet and legs.

Cloth diapers made from gauze are much more comfortable in summer but while the savings compared to disposables are huge; the initial costs are very high, especially on a fixed income. Basically the compromise I've worked out is that I only wear disposable diapers when I am going to be away from home for more than two diaper changes. The rest of the time, for the most part I wear cloth diapers.

Sent by Jamie Davidoff | 6:31 PM | 7-17-2008

let 'em poop in the woods...problem solved.

Sent by george | 11:29 AM | 7-19-2008

As an expecting Grandfather - here is a long term view. One of the ways that you ca really reduce the waste - in all its forms - is to really make an effort around 2 to train off diapers.

I am stunned by the fact that many boys are still in diapers at 4!

It takes about a week of constant attention and you are free!

Another helping fact is the power of habit. Our dogs have become accustomed to doing their poos at a regular time in the morning. Babies can also be habituated after 1 year to be "regular" as well - so you can experiment more when the habit is formed without a diaper - if you are around that it.

Finally the bad news - once they start eating solid food it gets seriously more unappetizing and major blowouts more challenging.

PS - with boys watch out for the cold air effect - diaper comes off - you lean forward - the coooler air hits his bits and bingo - old faithful gives you a facefull

Aaah Memories - you will look back years later at your strapping man/son and think with great fondness about the times you changed him

Sent by Robert Paterson | 8:16 AM | 7-22-2008

OH NO!!! I just heard this morning that the project will no longer be with us any more. I am very schocked by this news and will miss the show and the great people that bring us the world every morning. Thank you stimulating my sleepy neurons every morning for the last several months since I started listening and realizing that coffee was failing to do its job... Good Luck to you all!!!!!!!!!!!

Sent by Al Ward | 8:46 AM | 7-22-2008

We use an eco-friendly diaper at nights and when away from the house, and then use cloth (with a liner, somewhat like g-diapers) at home during the day and on weekends. We decided to clean the cloth diapers ourselves, line dry them, and we never use chlorine. For our first child, we never would have considered washing cloth ourselves... but after cleaning a four year old's poop-in-underwear accidents, infant poops are nothing! We started out highly idealistic (an not maintainable) with our first kid, all cloth and an eco-friendly diaper service, and ended up more pragmatic with the second, a cost-effective "hybrid" approach.

Sent by Anna | 12:12 PM | 7-24-2008