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Garbology (or, you are what you trash)

November 14, 2010

I have some friends who are due to have a baby right around the new year, and I casually asked them if they had thought about diapering options.  They said that they are probably just going to go ahead and use disposables because they are easier.  I didn’t say anything, because a) they are friends who b) already made some comments about being “preached” at by a natural-birth advocate (nazi, as he put it) and c) I didn’t have to because the father-to-be asked/verified that DH and I cloth diaper LM.  I told him yes, almost exclusively, and took the opportunity to comment that it’s really easier than it’s made out to be, it is actually cheaper, and it doesn’t contribute to the massive quantities of diapers in landfills and out floating in the oceans.

In fact, I went on to say, it’s estimatd that disposable diapers account for almost 20% of the garbage volume in American landfills.  He totally pounced; he just finished read a book called “Rubbish” that discusses the science of garbology, which is basically contemporary archaeology through studying garbage.  The statistic that I cited (without knowing the actual source, my bad) is apparently based on a study of garbage conducted in the late 70’s that relied on self-reporting.  Well, I believe that people almost always lie, so it makes sense to me that the particular number might be off.  Paper is apparently what is REALLY filling up landfills, because it gets compacted and mummifies and therefore does not break down the way it is supposed to, like it does in backyard compost piles.  Plastic is a close second, but with really no hope of breaking down the way that paper could if broken up so the necessary moisture and bacteria could decompose it.

Apparently, disposable diapers really only account for 1 to 2% of the volume of garbage in the landfills, and thus (my friend concluded) it was ok if they went ahead and used disposable diapers.  Then came “cloth diapers are icky anyway” which I believe to be the real reason.

The conversation ended there but I thought about that for awhile.  First of all, I’m not going to challenge the statistic because I have no reason to, but I think overall quantity of household garbage has increased dramatically in the 30 years since that first, self-reported study was done.  So it is possible that for the people who reported in the initial study, disposable diapers may have made up a greater percentage of their garbage than it does for people today. Then I thought that if we used disposables, it would at least double our household garbage output!  Right now, I take the garbage out every week for pickup, and despite almost daily kitty litter scooping and the consolidation of all the garbage cans in the house, the ONE bag I take out every week is never totally full (20 gallon can).  Our lifestyle just don’t generate that amount of trash, so 30-40 disposable diapers would therefore account for more than half of our trash.

On top of that, diapers are sort of a specialized household item…it’s not like newspapers, magazines, plastic bottles or any other sort of trash that all households will throw out in varying quantities–if you don’t have a baby, you won’t have any diapers in your trash, period.  If you do have a baby, you will have lots of diapers.  And no doubt, having babies/children increases the volume of trash a household produces anyway, so those factors probably combined with the tendency of people to lie in general, and that created the skewed statistic.  That was just mental meandering though..

The point that I made to myself (and DH, who listened to this whole commentary on the drive home) was that it doesn’t matter if diapers only make up 1% of the garbage in landfills.  That is 1% that we can personally NOT contribute to, on top of our low level of garbage creation in general.  DH said he was glad we cloth diaper anyway and he reiterated that he thinks I am a good mother.  That always makes me feel fuzzy.

It’s not my child, so I am not going to start another conversation about cloth diapering with my friends, but it is my planet so I’ll always be ready if they start to conversation again some day.  I had to do something though, so I mentioned Elimination Communication to them, pointing out that it can be done casually or part-time and results in less dirty diapers no matter what kind of diapers are used.  They seemed interested in that concept, so I’ll have to see where that goes.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 15, 2010 9:02 pm

    I think that part of the problem is that most people are throwing away more than they used to. Our neighbors always have giant overflowing garbage cans and it is honestly disgusting to see the formula cans and dirty diapers that will fall out if the garbage truck doesn’t dump it just right…We almost never fill our 13 gallon kitchen trash each week (even after emptying everything else into it) and only take it out because it would be nasty to leave it a second week. However, we recycle, compost and use cloth diapers. At one point we took a vacation where we didn’t know if we would have laundry facilities so we used disposables and the used diapers from a 4 day trip took up more space than our normal weekly trash. However, compared to how much most people throw away each week it really would have been a drop in the bucket.

    We cloth diaper for different reasons, the biggest being that I can’t imagine having plastic against my girly bits 24/7 and see no need to subject my child to that. I figure any woman who doesn’t like using disposable pads shouldn’t force her child to use disposable diapers…The environmental and cost factors are honestly second to comfort for me.

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