Diapers are dirty. And we’re not talking about poop. Conventional disposable diapers are made with gels, chemicals, dyes, and plastics. These materials pose a major threat to our environment and potential risks to babies. Considering the average baby will go through 5,500-6,000 diapers before they’re potty trained, this isn’t something to shake a stick at.
Disposable diapers are the 3rd largest contributor to American landfills, with over 18 billion diapers being tossed into the landfill EVERY YEAR. That’s literally a shit ton. And it’s expected to take 500 years for a single diaper to decompose. Just think about that for a minute.. Think of all the diapers from every baby you’ve ever known. Plus all the diapers from all the big kids and adults you know whose parents used disposables. All combined together in poopy mounds around the country that are exponentially growing. That will be there for centuries, or forever if the continued trend of diaper manufacturing keeps its course. Now try to gag… pretty gross, huh? Those heaping piles of s*** also release methane as they decompose, contributing to the overall greenhouse gas emissions.
And that’s just thinking about the WASTE. Now take a pause and think about the manufacturing that goes into creating the billions and billions of diapers sold. With inputs from petroleum-based products and wood pulp and the energy and water consumption required to manufacture, diapers carry a hefty carbon footprint (not to say the footprint of cloth diapers is light… but that’s a whole different subject).
There’s no way around it, disposable diapers are super bad for the environment. These things don’t go anywhere! What’s our end game? Live on a giant hill of diaper trash?
The environmental impact of our disposable diapers is easy to see. We know these materials take a very long time to decompose. But what about the things that are harder to see? Like what’s inside our diapers and what they’re made out of? Are they safe for baby? The answer is.. it depends?
It depends on what you’re comfortable with as a parent. If you are the type of parent that relies on and trusts what research says about proven adverse affects than yes, you’re safe. There are no proven health issues that have come from a baby wearing Pampers. But, if you’re the type of parent that tries to minimize their baby’s exposure to chemicals or that the research that has been conducted isn’t adequate (while diapers have not been proven TO harm babies, there also hasn’t been extensive research to prove there is NO POTENTIAL to harm babies).
We think every parent makes the decision that’s best for their family. And part of that decision is having is having access to information. Here’s what we’ve identified as important info to know (with a little of our commentary sprinkled in ;)).
One of the best things about disposables is their absorbency power. They were designed to keep your baby dry and most of them do a damn good job. A lot of cloth diapering mamas will opt for disposables at night for that reason. But what makes disposables so super at their job is (most often) a nontoxic chemical called sodium polyacrylate. This chemical is also a main ingredient in fake snow and those weird gel crystals you played with as a kid.
Sodium Polyacrylate. Image: Baby Gear Lab
Sodium polyacrylate is deemed totally safe by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It is considered an eye irritant, so if baby rips a diaper (which happens more often than one might think) there’s a (very manageable) concern. Another point to consider that sodium polyacrylate sometimes brings in small amounts of acrylic acid to the diaper mix as a consequence of the manufacturing process. Acrylic acid IS toxic and poses several health risks including skin and respiratory hazards. The level in acrylic acid is reported to be too low to be a concern, although the only cited report we’ve been able to find referenced was funded by Procter & Gamble, who are a major player in the disposable diaper game (they manufacture Pampers). Pretty much all disposable diapers, even the eco-friendly ones, use sodium polyacrylate, and agree with the science stating its safety. Here’s an interesting read from G-Diapers on the subject.
Dioxins ARE toxic and identified as a likely human carcinogen by the EPA. Dioxins are associated with damage to the immune and reproductive systems and causing cancer. Dioxins are abundantly present in our environment. In diapers, dioxins are created during the bleaching process. Commonly cited research has found the levels of dioxins are not high enough to create any harm. Other experts argue there is not enough known about the effects of constant, low-level exposure to dioxins to take a definitive stance.
As BabyGearLab puts it “While dioxins are only left in trace quantities in chlorine-bleached diapers, we prefer ‘none’ to ‘trace’ when it comes to babies.” We think that’s a pretty smart stance. Dioxins can be avoided by choosing “chlorine-free” diapers.
Dyes & Perfumes
Some might think dyes and perfumes just make things look and smell pretty. But these are sources for unnecessary reactions. Take a minute and think about your baby’s sweet, soft, pure skin. That tiny tush, chubby legs, and adorable tummy. So cute, right? We’re pretty confident they look and smell just as sweet as can be without these additives. These areas are most at risk for effects from these ingredients. Dyes and perfumes are generally “safe” but can create local skin irritation and rashes. They can be extra harsh on newborns’ skin.
Sometimes in the waterproof liner, other times hidden in the all-too-elusive “fragrances” ingredient listing, unless a diaper brand states it doesn’t contain phthalates you probably want to assume the DO. What are phthalates besides a super hard word to pronounce? They’re a group of chemicals used as plasticizer. They’re commonly found in plastics, food packaging, toys, cosmetics, and as a solvent in fragrances to make them last longer. Phthalates have been linked to cancer, obesity, asthma, fertility issues and considered “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Since babies are such small little humans, they’re bodies may be more affected by these nasties.
While the safety issue may be up for debate, there’s no question poor Mama Earth is getting the sh** end of the stick.
Disposable diapers are hailed for being easier, cleaner, and more absorbent. Aannnd… we pretty much agree with all of those statements. (Although, cloth diapering has really evolved in the past 20 years. It’s really not that scary or gross.) Does this mean if cloth diapers aren’t your jam or you’re a cloth-using mama who needs a disposable option for travel/daycare/nighttime, you’re doomed to contributing to the diaper disaster? What’s an eco-conscious-disposable-diaper-using-mama to do?
The good news is there are a lot of green diaper options out there. Some more environmentally friendly than others. A perfect solution, no, but considering the massive quantities of diapers each baby uses, small steps really add up to making a difference.
The list of green (or greener) diapers has gotten quite long. Which is a great thing! We’ll be sharing a more in depth comparison someday soon. In the meantime, we love what Mama Natural has to say on the subject and BabyGearLab has an awesome side-by-side comparison of some popular brands.
Our personal picks for disposables are:
Bambo Nature diapers rate very highly for absorption, better than any other eco-diaper on Baby Gear Lab. They are free of formaldehyde, chlorine, perfumes, and lotions, uses no latex or phthalates. The inner fluff is made from FSC-Certified sustainably-harvested forests and the dyes are free of heavy metals. They are 80% compostable, which is obviously a great quality, but Bambo has also worked hard to minimize the environmental impact through their manufacturing. They’re acheived the Nordic-Ecolabel, which is a testiment to their commitment to sustainability. The (Denmark based) is very transparent, which we love. They even have a dedicated page that lists the ingredients.
Poof diapers claim to be the first fully biodegradeable disposable diaper. And since we can’t find any others that can take the same stance, we fully believe them. Their diapers are solid too… they have nice thick tabs that just make you feel safe. And their cute graphics prove green diapers don’t need to be ugly.
They use a corn-based SAP (Super Absorbent Polymer), have bamboo liners, and contain NO lead, chlorine, latex, or fragrance. The brains behind these awesome eco diapers is, of course, a mama, who had a background in textile science and was frustrated by the devastating environmental impact of diapers. We’re actually surprised there’s not a bigger buzz about these. The only downfall we see is the price… these green goodies can cost over $1 per diaper based on the size.
We also are big fans of gDiapers, which are a hybrid-style diaper. These cuties include a washable cotton diaper cover (gPants) with a washable, waterproof “pouch” (snap-in liner), and compostable inserts.
The inserts aren’t just compostable, they’re Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Certified Silver. This means they are designed to not just be “less bad” for the environment but to make a positive impact, taking into account their entire impact from manufacturing to disposal. To achieve this certification, products can’t contain any chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, reproductive harm, be carcinogenic, etc. They must have an ethical supply chain, be manufactured under operations that purchase renewables or offset with renewables, and more. You can read more about gDiapers certification here and the C2C certification here.
What we love most about the Certification is that it requires serious transparency. And also, it proves the company is aware of the complete impact of their products and invested in sustainability enough to pursue certification (no easy task, we can imagine). gDiapers is also a B Corp, so they are definitely committed to making a positive impact.
gDiapers also offer a traditional cloth insert made from hemp (a very sustainable choice for cloth diaper material!) for mamas and papas who want to go cloth all the way or hybrid sometimes, cloth sometimes.
How do you diaper your Little Loves’ tush? Any favorite eco-disposables to share?
Lots of Love,
The Fresh Little Love Fam