Is Disposable Diaper Environmental Impact Real & Are They Really Bad For Our Kids?
We at Wholesome Nest have one goal – to make sure that your nest is as wholesome as possible. A wholesome nest isn’t just one that looks good and has everything the baby needs. It is also one that is safe for your little one, and the environment. So when someone wonders about disposable diaper environmental impact, or how hazardous certain chemicals are for our babies, we feel obligated to find them answers. It is not common for people to think about the environment when it comes to babies, nurseries and everything hopeful and optimistic. However, we need to remember that protecting the environment is protecting the planet – one that our children are set to inherit.
As parents, we feel responsible for our children’s safety and well-being. And a good way of looking out for them is by knowing what we are exposing them to. We focus so much on manners, people skills, and appearances that we often forget that we live in a world where dangers are lurking at every corner. That’s where the idea of How Wholesome came about. We wanted to give all parents – new, to-be, young and old – the power of information. They have the right to know what their children are being exposed to. And prevent it from happening. In this series, we will shed light on different baby and children products, and delve deeper into what goes into making them. We will also look at the direct and indirect effects they have on our children, as well as the impact they have on the environment.
In this particular episode, we will break down the notorious disposable diapers – something that almost 90% of parents use for their children, and that 95% of all babies in the United States use.
How Did Disposable Diapers Come About?
New parents haven’t always used disposable diapers. Until the 1950s, mothers used cloth diapers for their babies. They didn’t know any other way. However, the rise of disposable diapers was a circumstantial one. When they were first introduced, disposable diapers didn’t really catch on. The general premise for rejection was that no one wanted their wives to wrap up their children in a plastic undergarment.
However, after the Second World War, the circumstances were very different. Casualties included men, time, money and a workforce. Women – including mothers – were needed to pump life back into the global economy. Under such circumstances, it was difficult for many mothers to work and manage babies at the same time. As any new parent would verify, babies soil themselves very regularly. No woman had the capability to work long hours at the factory, while tending to a child who needed to be constantly changed. Cloth diapers took a lot of time and energy to be changed, washed, and dried. So, it was a choice between spending time changing and washing cloth diapers and making more money for the family. And once mothers adopted the disposable diaper, there was no looking back.
Where Do We Stand Now?
At present, disposable diapers are almost synonymous with babies (not in the literal sense, of course). They have become so ubiquitous globally that using them has become second nature. Disposable diapers become an intrinsic part of a baby’s life from the day they are born, because we don’t know anything else. Yes, they are extremely convenient. But there’s a difference between convenience and compromise. Lately, in order to provide convenience to parents, companies have started to compromise on values.
Is that really a cost we are willing to bear? This problem goes way beyond money. It is a matter of safety, quality, transparency, and basic decency towards the environment. Are we willing to ignore disposable diaper environmental impact and the long-term effects they have on our children?
However, it is not all in vain. Despite our dependence on disposable diapers, there is a solution… or at least an idea of one. And the first step for its execution is to inform ourselves. We need to know the exact scale of the problem in order to get ourselves out of this stinky pickle!
Breaking Down the Diaper
A disposable diaper consists of three main sections. The outer, waterproof layer, the middle, absorbent core, and the inner layer. As you read on, you will find that unfortunately, all three layers come with their own risks.
The Backsheet/Waterproof Outer Shell: This is the part of the diaper that is visible when the baby is wearing it. It is generally made up of a breathable [petroleum-based] polyethylene film, similar to a plastic wrap or a plastic-treated material. Some eco-friendly brands use a plant-based plastic called bioplastic (a substance made from renewable resources like vegetable oil), instead of the petroleum byproduct. This layer protects the diaper’s internal ‘filtration system’, and the clothes that the baby wears.
The Acquisition and Absorbent Layer: This layer is made up of an air-laid paper, and a combination of fluff material – often derived from wood pulp, or wheat/corn based materials – and chemical crystals, known as Super Absorbent Polymer or SAP. The fluff and SAP work together to ensure that all the moisture that comes from a baby’s excretion is absorbed and trapped inside the diaper, and doesn’t leak. On an individual level, the fluff distributes liquid waste matter across the surface of the diaper (acquisition), while the SAP absorbs and locks it (absorption).
The Inner Layer/Top Sheet: This part, that is directly in contact with the baby’s skin, is made up of a nonwoven material. It serves to direct all moisture in the urine or the fecal matter, towards the absorbent core.
Disposable Diaper Environmental Impact & Other Risks
Despite the convenience they offer, these are some obvious disadvantages of disposable diapers. Yes, they are detrimental to the babies, but we can no longer discount the disposable diaper environmental impact. While they are enough to turn anyone against them, many parents still feel that the convenience they offer outweigh the risks they pose.
Internal Health Impact
Allergic Reaction: Baby skin is extremely sensitive and gentle. Therefore, anything even mildly unnatural could prompt an allergic reaction. Most diaper manufacturers use synthetic fibers, dyes and other harsh chemicals in the production process. Baby skin is not strong enough to endure them. This is not us being sentimental; this is science. Baby skin is so sensitive that it could real with something as unassuming as the dye used to print a design on the outer shell.
Toxicity Over Time: Borrowing from the previous point, exposing your baby to chemicals and synthetic materials, over several years, could essentially expose them to toxins. On an average, a baby changes 8 to 10 diapers a day. You may change their diaper as frequently as possible during the day, but odds are, that they do end up spending several hours in a single diaper at night. And the reality is, the baby is almost never without one. So with that kind of almost uninterrupted exposure, chemical substances have a chance of entering the baby’s body. And this could lead to toxicity.
Infection: Speaking of breeding grounds for bacteria, the disposable diaper’s design also creates ideal conditions for infection. The diaper is designed to ensure that nothing – not even the odor – leaves the diaper. As a consequence, nothing can even enter the diaper. Which is great, because you don’t want more dirt to collect inside. But that also means that there is no ventilation – a means for air to flow inside. This makes the environment inside even more prone to bacteria and germs, which can easily cause skin infections. process
External Heath Impact
Rashes: One of the benefits of cloth diapers is that they don’t allow parents to become complacent and let their babies sit too long in their dirt. Parents who use disposable diapers tend to leave their babies in wet diapers for a lot longer than those who use cloth diapers. And a wet diaper is a breeding ground for bacteria and contamination, which lead to rashes.
Toilet Training: One thing that many “grandmothers” will tell you (whether you ask them or not) is how easy it was to toilet train you, or how easily they were toilet trained by their mothers. As off-putting as this information is in that moment, there is wisdom behind it. Since diapers are so convenient, a lot of parents let their young ones wear them for long hours. The little ones get so used to urinating and defecating whenever and wherever they want, that they get conditioned to the convenience it offers. So when the time comes for you to potty-train them, they have a lot of difficulty adjusting to the fact that now they’ll have to seek assistance before peeing and pooping, as opposed to just doing it and informing afterwards.
If you have had a baby in the last 20 to 25 years, you would know that diapers are a major and constant expense. As mentioned before, babies often go through 8 to 10 diapers a day, and sometimes more if they’re unwell or if they get wet. And considering that a lot of babies never spend a minute without diapers, this expense doesn’t stop until they are weaned off.
Disposable Diaper Environmental Impact
Considering how many babies and toddlers there are in the world, how many of them use diapers, and at what frequency, it is safe to say that disposable diapers are disposed into the environment. Consequently, disposable diaper environmental impact is real. With most of them being incapable of decomposing naturally, it is safe to say that everything that goes into making the diaper, makes it into our environment, our food chains and into us. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Green Guide, for an item to be biodegradable, it “should completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.” The stipulated time given is that of one year, unless they say otherwise. One year. And did you know how long it would take for a disposable diaper to decompose? More than 500 years.
In conclusion, there are a lot of disadvantages to using disposable diapers, which seems to have one – and only one – advantage. Convenience. The question you should be asking, are you willing to pay all that price for convenience? And what if there is a relatively less harmful option available in the market? Would you be willing to switch to lesser known brands?
And that is not all. This discussion opens up the floor for a plethora of questions:
- If disposable diapers are so bad for our children and the environment, why do people still choose disposable diapers over cloth diapers?
- What exactly is it that makes disposable diapers so dangerous?
- Is it even possible to conveniently keep your baby clean and safe?
For answers, be sure to check out in Part Two of How Wholesome: Disposable Diapers – What Makes Them Unsafe.