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The Politics of Diapers

By the Mothering Staff

Issue 116, January - February 2003

1961 Proctor and Gamble (P&G) introduces Pampers.

1971 Pennsylvania Boy Scouts conducting a highway cleanup campaign report that the largest single source of litter is the disposable diaper. Disposable diapers contribute 171,000 dry weight tons of waste to be processed by US sewage systems. (M. A. Shapiro, Preliminary Study of the Environmental Impacts from Processing and Disposal of Diapers)

1975, February In comparing the effectiveness of several brands of disposable diapers, Consumer Reports notes that trees are cut down in their manufacture, enteric (intestinal) viruses and live polio viruses from vaccines have been found in feces in disposable diapers removed from "sanitary" landfills, flushing diapers can ruin septic tanks and plumbing lines and damage sewage-treatment plants, and only commercial incinerators can safely burn disposables.

1975, July Wildlife-management personnel complain of the increasing presence of throwaway diapers improperly disposed of in parks and preservation areas. In North Carolina, a marine biologist reports that raw sewage spilling from pipes clogged with disposable diapers is killing fish. (The Sentinel, Winston-Salem, July 31, 1975)

1975 "The presence of viruses in untreated human fecal matter in solid waste disposal sites originates largely from the increased, wide-spread use of disposable diapers, which often send feces to landfill sites rather than to the sewage plant. Small children and babies excrete large numbers of enteric viruses in their feces, and viruses from landfill sites might be leached out and contaminate underground water supplies." (Baylor College of Medicine)

1975 The EPA warns that rainwater washing through dumps may carry viruses-which can live in compacted solid waste for up to two weeks-into underground streams, and from there into public and private water supplies. Improved sanitation during this century has made rare the diseases associated with direct contact with raw sewage: hepatitis A, shigella, salmonellosis, amebiasis, and typhoid. However, the University of Oregon Survival Center notes that outbreaks of shigella, salmonellosis, and hepatitis A are now more common in hospitals and daycare centers. The World Health Organization has called for an end to the inclusion of urine and fecal matter in solid waste.

1978 The Office of Appropriate Technology of Lane County, Oregon, takes three random samplings from a sanitary landfill and finds that disposable diapers comprise 16 percent, 26 percent, and 32 percent of the garbage extracted in each sample.

1979 Pediatrician Dr. Fred C. Weiner, of Montreal, Canada, studies one-month-old babies brought to a well-baby clinic for a period of one year and finds that disposables cause more frequent and more severe diaper rash. He advises limiting their use. (Journal of Pediatrics 95, September 1979)

1979 Oregon Senator Mary M. Burrows co-authors the state's first proposed bill to ban the sale of disposables.

1981 Testimony on behalf of HB3047 and HB2838, the Disposable Diaper Ban Bill, before the Oregon House Energy and Environment Committee of the Legislative Assembly: "Valuable wood pulp goes into the manufacture of close to ten billion diapers annually. This represents in excess of 800,000,000 pounds of paper. All of this paper is used only once and thrown away. It cannot be recycled. Yet, the timber industry doesn't have enough allowable cut at the same time that the public is increasing its use of recreational timberland and is clamoring for more. We cannot afford to sink our valuable and diminishing natural resources into throwaway diapers. Industry sources claim that disposable diapers require less energy than rewashing reusable (cloth) diapers. These claims must be rejected out-of-hand. None of these energy use figures include the costs of sewage treatment or solid waste hauling and management, to say nothing of long-term costs of directing natural resources from other uses."

1986 "Over 40 percent of newborns in US hospitals are diapered in Ultra Pampers. In addition, the diaper has received a highly favorable response from pediatricians. In fact, within the first five months of introduction, over 25 percent of your colleagues reported that they had recommended Ultra Pampers to parents of diaper-age children." ("Dear Doctor," a brochure enclosed in Proctor and Gamble's Medigram, November 7, 1986)

1987 US disposable diaper revenues total $3.2 billion. 82,000 tons of plastic and 1.3 million tons of wood pulp-about a quarter of a million trees-are consumed annually in the production of disposable diapers.

1987 The Empire State Consumer Association petitions the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the New York State Attorney General's office to prohibit the sale of synthetic super-absorbent disposable diapers and adult incontinence pads. The chemicals used in synthetic super-absorbent products contain sodium polyacrylate, cross-linked with polymers to create super-absorbent components. These chemicals can cause severe skin infections and, rarely, toxic shock syndrome.

1988 Proctor and Gamble pay $120,000 for a three-year study at the University of Michigan to determine the effects of sodium polyacrylate in disposable diapers once it enters a landfill. The researcher says that the study shows that disposables are environmentally safe. (UPI, July 28, 1988)

1989 EPA estimates that single-use diapers account for 2 percent of all solid waste in US landfills. A Seattle, Washington study finds that 1.8 percent of its municipal garbage is made up of diapers.

1989 In a study commissioned by the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS), Carl Lehrburger of Energy Answers Corporation, a resource recovery company in Albany, New York, estimates that parents pay ten cents in disposal costs for every dollar spent on throwaway diapers. With 18,000,000,000 soiled diapers being hauled to the landfill every year, Lehrburger figures that American mothers and fathers spend $300 million annually on disposable diapers that take 500 years to decompose. Throwaways comprise 2 percent of the nation's solid waste by weight, making them the third most common solid waste item after newspapers and beverage and food containers. Even if all 18,000,000,000 of the single-use diapers disposed of annually in the US were biodegradable, the public would still spend $300 million each year for their disposal. Each famil y that chooses cloth diapers for their child prevents one ton of waste from entering the solid waste stream each year. (Diapers in the Waste Stream, 1989)

1989 Dioxin is produced when chlorinated compounds, such as chlorinated plastics, are burned at high temperatures. Dioxin is formed when paper and wood pulp are bleached. The bleached pulp is then converted into a variety of paper products, including disposable diapers. Dioxin has been associated with cancer, liver disease, miscarriage, immune-system depression, birth defects, and genetic damage in a variety of laboratory animals. The fatty tissue of the average person living in the industrialized world harbors measurable levels of dioxin. When Proctor and Gamble faces the possibility of losing its share of the Swedish diaper market because of that country's curtailment of chlorinated pollution levels, the company begins making chlorine-free Pampers for export. ("Whitewash: The Dioxin Cover-Up," Greenpeace 14, no. 2, March/April 1989)

1989 "Diapers are a good target for waste reduction advocates because with the exception of newspapers and beverage containers, they are the single consumer product that contributes the most to solid waste stream." (Positive Steps towards Waste Reduction, June 1989)

1989 Diaper services, which almost disappeared in the late 1970s because of the introduction of the throwaway diaper, increase business by more than 70 percent as a result of hundreds of news stories on environmental concern and the growing demand for reusable cotton diapers. The National Association of Diaper Services (NADS), trade organization for the $150 million yearly diaper-service business, has about 400 members. Another $50 million is generated yearly by the manufacture and sale of cloth diapers.

1989, June Gerber, Childrenswear, and Dundee Mills, major US manufacturers of cotton diapers, lobby for quotas limiting cotton-diaper imports from China-producers of the world's best and most durable diapers, the ones that diaper services use. According to some critics, the quota on Chinese imports creates a cloth-diaper shortage and kills competition. Some services have to create waiting lists of prospective clients. NADS does not take a position on the Chinese quota, but does make an agreement with Gerber "to do nothing to denigrate Gerber's current sales level for one year." Gerber contributes $80,000 to NADS in 1989 and $60,000 in 1990. (San Francisco Examiner, June 7, 1989)

1989, June Proctor and Gamble announces two pilot programs designed to test the feasibility of recycling its millions of disposable diapers and to show that composting "is a viable disposal method for municipal solid waste." One pilot program is in King County, Washington, where the King County Nurses Association has been working to educate hospitals and parents about cloth-diaper alternatives, and where 20 of the county's 34 hospitals have switched to cloth in their newborn nurseries and pediatric units. The second program, a $250,000 composting demonstration project, is planned for St. Cloud, Minnesota, a city that already recycles two-thirds of its trash. According to a Proctor and Gamble spokesperson, "Our aim is not to get into the recycling business on a permanent basis. Rather, we want to demonstrate that the technology is feasible and encourage entrepreneurs to get involved in this business." (Proctor and Gamble press release, "Perspectives on Disposable Diapers," June 20, 1989)

1989, July Connecticut begins to phase out the use of disposable products, including those used in patient care. Oregon is in the process of extending a 50 percent recycling credit to diaper services. New Jersey legislates a tax on the manufacture of "disposable, 'one-way,' nonreusable or nonreturnable products." Connecticut and New York consider requiring manufacturers of single-use diapers to affix labels to all diaper products, stating the environmental hazards associated with their disposal. Nebraska bans the sale of all nonbiodegradable diapers effective 1993. (Press Release of the National Center for Policy Alternatives, July 19, 1989)

1989 Contra Costa County, California, sets a December 1990 deadline to begin recycling throwaways; otherwise, a ban may be in order or purchasers may be charged with disposal fees. (USA Weekend, September 15-17, 1989)

1989 Kimberly-Clark, the second largest manufacturer of single-use diapers in the US, unveils a new line: Huggies Pull-Ups, training pants aimed at toddlers who are being toilet-trained and bedwetters.

1990, April 20th anniversary of Earth Day.

1990 Legislation is introduced in 24 states and dozens of smaller jurisdictions to reduce the use of disposable diapers. Between eight and nine of every ten US families with diaper-age children use throwaway diapers most of the time. While in polls US families overwhelmingly support a ban on single-use diapers, three out of four mothers do not want to give up disposables.

1990 Proctor and Gamble commissions a study by Arthur D. Little, Inc., a consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The consultant finds that laundering a cloth diaper over the course of its lifetime consumes up to six times the water used to manufacture a single-use diaper. In addition, the study concludes that laundering cloth diapers produces nearly ten times the water pollution created in manufacturing throwaways. (Arthur D. Little, Inc., "Disposable Versus Reusable Diapers: Health, Environmental and Economic Comparisons.")

1990 Jeffrey Tyrens, associate director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Washington, DC, criticizes the Arthur D. Little study for a math error that makes single-use diapers appear cheaper than they are. He also finds that the ADL study fails to account for the water used in flushing away fecal material from single-use diapers-a practice recommended by Proctor and Gamble and other manufacturers on their diaper-box labels. Other critics point out that the ADL authors did not use independent data but instead relied on information gathered by P&G and other companies interested in promoting single-use diapers.

1990 Proctor and Gamble uses the Arthur D. Little data in a letter sent out under the auspices of the American Paper Institute, of which it is a member. The "Dear Legislator" letter reiterates the conclusions of the ADL study but fails to disclose that the study was funded by P&G. This letter prompts a rebuttal, a "Dear Colleague" letter signed by six legislators who support bills to encourage greater use of reusable diapers. Branding the API letter "misleading," the legislators write, "The disposable diaper industry realizes it is in danger of losing market share for this very profitable single-use product. Faced with overwhelmingly negative public opinion polls, they have launched a pro-disposable campaign among state lawmakers and commissioned the ADL study expressly to discredit cloth diapers." ("Review of Arthur D. Little, Inc.'s, 'Disposable Versus Reusable Diapers,' " Update on Diapers, September 1990)

1990 Proctor and Gamble sends more than 14 million copies of a pamphlet to US households stating that their diapers can be effectively composted in municipal solid-waste plants. The pamphlet, "Diapers and the Environment," complete with discount coupons for Luvs and Pampers, cites a five-week study conducted by P&G in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in which diapers from 2,700 homes and 17 daycare centers were composted along with the rest of the city's garbage. The results, according to the brochure, were "very positive." As part of a broad campaign to promote the company as environmentally friendly, P&G sponsors ads in more than a dozen major magazines featuring photographs of seedlings grow ing in pots filled with dark, porous-looking earth. The ads claim that 80 percent of each plastic and paper diaper is compostable and can be converted into a "rich, high-quality soil enhancer that's good for planting baby flowers, trees and just about anything else that grows." By some estimates, the company spends $250 million in 18 months on advertising. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs charges that P&G promotes its diapers as easily compostable, but in fact few consumers have access to adequate composting facilities. A Rhode Island state official demands that P&G remove the following misleading statement, which appears on boxes of free samples of Luvs dropped on doorsteps that spring: "This product is compostable in municipal composting units. Support recycling and composting in your community." Rhode Island has no such facilities for composting diapers.

1991 P&G's $750,000 disposable diaper recycling project in King County (see 1989, June; second entry) is declared a technical success but an economic failure, yet continues to be touted in brochures for Luvs and Pampers. (Seattle Times, January 25, 1991)

1991, January Sponsored by NADS, Carl Lehrburger and colleagues undertake the most detailed study to date: a life-cycle, or cradle-to-grave, diaper analysis. They find that throwaway diapers, compared with reusables, produce seven times more solid waste when discarded and three times more waste in the manufacturing process. In addition, effluents from the plastic, pulp, and paper industries are far more hazardous than those from the cotton-growing and -manufacturing processes. Single-use diapers consume less water than reusables laundered at home, but more than those sent to a commercial diaper service. According to industry data from Franklin Associates and the American Petroleum Institute, 3.5 billion gallons of oil are used to produce the 18 million throwaway diapers that end up in landfills each year. Washing cloth diapers at home uses 50 to 70 gallons of water every three days-about the same as flushing the toilet five times a day. A diaper service puts its diapers through an average of 13 water changes, but uses less water and energy per diaper than one laundry load at home. (Carl Lehrburger, Jocelyn Mullen, and C. V. Jones, "Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis," January 1991)

1991, July The American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics publish the recommendations of their joint Child Care Standards Project. After four years of debate and research, the groups conclude that "only modern disposable paper diapers with absorbent gelling material" meet the standards they suggest for daycare centers.

1991, July In the United Kingdom, the Campaign for Reusable Diapers, the Women's Environmental Network's first initiative, finds that all of the available research on the environmental impact of throwaway diapers had been funded directly by makers of throwaways. A London independent environmental agency, the Landbank Consultancy, is asked to review and evaluate the data. The Landbank Report concludes that, compared to cloth diapers, throwaway diapers use 20 times more raw materials, three times more energy, twice as much water, and generate 60 times more waste. Using the Landbank Report, the Women's International Network challenges Proctor and Gamble's environmental equivalency claims before the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA rules that P&G's claims are misleading. Under pressure from the press, P&G withdraws its claims.

1994 The Women's Environmental Network (USA) joins with other groups to demand a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of the single-use diaper industry, charging the industry with deceptive advertising of environmental and health outcomes. Proctor and Gamble pays out-of-court settlements to the New York City Consumer Protection Board and to the Attorneys General of at least ten states for misleading advertising claims related to the recycling and composting of Pampers and Luvs. Environmental groups nationwide, including the New York Public Interest Group and Californians Against Waste, present Earth Day Awards to cloth diapers. Environmental Action, in Washington, DC, gives the Environmental Citizenship Award to the more than 300 hospitals nationwide that have switched to cloth diapers in the past few years. (Wet Set Gazette, April 1994)

1998 Fewer than one in ten US and Canadian households use cloth diapers. Thirty-five percent fewer cloth diapers were produced in the first six months of 1997 as compared with 1996. NADS has 150 members, a 37 percent drop in less than ten years. Disposable diapers have gone up as a percentage of solid waste in landfills. In Seattle, disposable diapers have increased from 2.5 percent of all residential waste in landfills from 1986 to 1989, to 3.3 percent from 1994 to 1995. (Residential Waste Stream Composition Study by the Cascadia Consulting Group)

1998 Seattle Baby Diaper Service receives a subsidy from Seattle Solid Waste for the cost of diaper service for low-income families because it's cheaper to pay a diaper service than to haul the waste away. Certain cities in Germany and Austria subsidize the cost of cloth diapers. Each child in disposables costs the city roughly $400 in municipal waste costs yearly. Coupons of $50 to $100 per family toward the purchase of cloth diapers have increased cloth-diaper usage in certain areas of Austria from almost zero to more than 40 percent.

1999 A study, "Acute Respiratory Effects of Diaper Emissions," in the October issue of Archives of Environmental Health, finds that laboratory mice exposed to various brands of disposable diapers suffered eye, nose, and throat irritation, including bronchoconstriction similar to that of an asthma attack. Chemicals released from the diapers included toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, styrene, and isopropylbenzene, among others. The lead author of the study, Dr. Rosalind C. Anderson, advises asthmatic mothers to avoid exposure to these chemicals. Asthma rates are on a sharp incline in the US and worldwide, particularly among poor and inner-city children. Six leading brands of cotton and disposable diapers are tested. Of these, three are found not to affect the breathing of mice: American Fiber and Finishing Co., Gladrags organic cotton diapers, and Tender Care disposable diapers. Cloth diapers are not found to cause respiratory problems among mice.

2000 German study links use of plastic diapers to male infertility. The mean scrotal temperature is significantly higher in all age groups during the periods of plastic diaper use. Plastic diapers seriously undermine the body's natural ability to keep the scrotum and testicles cool. The researchers call for further research on the impact of increased testicular temperature in infancy on later sperm production. ("Scrotal Temperature is Increased in Disposable Plastic Lined Nappies," Archives of Disease in Childhood 83, October 2000.)

For more information, see these past issues of Mothering: no. 28, no. 43, no. 53, no. 55, no. 60, no. 73, #80, no. 103, no. 104, and no. 105.

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